Intelligence Squared #2: That Vague Old Notion Called God?

Intelligence Squared #2: That Vague Old Notion Called God?

iq2-logoThis is part two of my “class report” on a recent Common Ground Group homework assignment, specifically, to read the transcript of the Intelligence Squared debate of the proposition that “Science Refutes God”, consider its implications and comment on it.

The motion (Science refutes God) was argued by two teams. The A Team (A is for Atheist) was composed of Michael Shermer—American science writer, science historian and founder of The Skeptics Society—and Lawrence Krauss, Canadian-American theoretical physicist, cosmologist and professor of physics.

On the B Team (B is for Believer) were Dinesh D’Souza—Indian American conservative political commentator, author and former President of The King’s College, NY—and Ian Hutchinson, Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Both are Christians, but neither was raised in that faith.

In part one, we looked at the motion itself: Science Refutes God. Krauss and Shermer based their arguments on:

  1. The irrationality of their opponents.
  2. The definition of refute as not being synonymous with disprove.
  3. The unreasonableness of certain Christian doctrines.

Hutchinson and D’Souza countered by saying, essentially, that there is no scientific proposition that refutes God. However, they also commented on the Christian doctrine of the Sonship of Christ, which begged questions unrelated to the motion.

Krauss further contended that:

“…there’s no way to disprove the notion that God didn’t create all of us 15 seconds ago with the memories of the amusing comments we heard before that.  There’s no way we can disprove that, okay.  And that’s really important to recognize that those kind of unfalsifiable notions are unfalsifiable, as I say.  But we can ask, is it rational to expect that that’s likely.  And tonight I want to emphasize that 500 years of science have demonstrated that Godthat vague notion, is not likely.  It’s irrational to believe in God. (emphasis mine)

Science and Religions ProcessAgain, we have an argument based on a questionable assumption. God may be a vague notion to Krauss, but He is not a vague notion to Bahá’u’lláh (Founder of the Baha’i Faith) or to any of the other Avatars who claimed to represent God. Nor is He a vague notion to the people who believe in God in part because of the testimony of these individuals. Krauss seems unaware of the long line of Avatars and Prophets who have proposed very specific teachings about (and from) this “vague” God that billions of people put into daily practice. Even those who do not consciously associate themselves with a particular religious tradition (the so-called “nones”) put many of those principles into practice out of habit, instruction, and rational and emotional sensibilities—that is, because they work Those practices form part of an experience that is not testable in any laboratory except the laboratory of life.

Which brings up a salient point: the reality in which most of us live day to day does not adhere to scientific paradigms. We experience too many things moment by moment that cannot be tested in a lab, and make too many decisions that cannot be decided by mathematical equations or Bayesian logic. In fact, the things that are most important to human beings in daily life are not material, physical things at all, but intellectual and emotional constructs. We live less and less in the world of natural laws and more and more in the world of the intellect, which is a marvelous place to exist if one has developed the intellectual faculties to do so.

But I digress. Krauss concludes that the belief that God created us and all our memories 15 seconds ago is irrational. The B Team would come to the same conclusion, based on the same criteria. The implication of Krauss’s words is that they would not come to that conclusion (perhaps because they are incapable of using logic) and his evidence of this is his opinion that believing God created the universe 15 seconds ago is no less irrational than believing that He created it billions of years ago along with the natural laws that make it work.

So far, all Krauss has done is make absolute pronouncements based on his opinions. “It is irrational to believe in God,” he says. But throughout the debate, neither he nor his teammate, Michael Shermer, substantiated the pronouncement in any way. They simply repeated it in different forms as if by repeating it, they made it real.

And they did make it real for a subset of their audience. Real enough that those people came out of the debate believing that science does, indeed, refute or disprove God.

Thoughtful Theism

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include some B Team commentary. Ian Hutchinson, author of Monopolizing Knowledge (which I just purchased) began his presentation of the believer’s point of view somewhat differently than his anti-theist colleague…

Let’s agree that this motion is not about whether, for example, the latest sociological theories disprove the gods and goddesses of ancient Greek mythology. No, it’s about whether modern natural science exemplified by things like physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and so on rule out thoughtful theism.

So far so good. He continued:

earth-from-space-western-400x400

Our job is just to show that Christianity’s God is not refuted by science. Now, obviously there are some religious beliefs that are ruled out by science, for example, the belief that the earth is stationary and orbited by the sun, moon, and stars. That is disproved by science, and perhaps prior to the 17th century, most Christians held a belief like that, as did most other people. But that stationary earth belief is not in the least central to the Christian message and doctrine. (emphasis mine)

And here is where I think the B Team first gets off message. Hutchinson states the goal well—to show that science does not rule out thoughtful theism. But then I think he goes off into the weeds. First of all, the centrality of the earth is not only “not in the least central to the Christian message”, it’s not part of the Christian message at all. Neither Christ nor Moses (nor any other Prophet prior to Baha’u’llah) said one word about how the planets aligned, though Muhammad did note that the Sun was a fixed star.

Oddly, this made me wonder not how much Dr. Hutchinson knew about physics (presumably lots) but how much he knew about the contents of the Bible and how closely he equated those contents with the sectarian dogma of a particular congregation.

More important still, Hutchinson narrowed the target of the motion down to “Christianity’s God” and set up a challenge.

To establish the motion, what our opponents have to do is to show that some central tenet of what Christians believe about God is impossible or at least highly implausible in the light of science, and that’s a tall order. Actually, they can’t even come close.

A Doctrine of Science

What the A Team did was to open the door to the argument about the irrationality of a God who punished all of humanity for the sins of a long dead progenitor and then required a further death to redeem humanity (either His own or His son’s depending on the particular doctrine). A humanity that continues, by the way, to commit its own sins.

This was unfortunate for the B Team because they made some very cogent arguments in other areas.

For example, Ian Hutchinson said:

But let me dispense with a couple of the most plausible sounding arguments. I’ll illustrate one common argument from the writing of an MIT colleague, Alan Lightman, who wrote in the Salon magazine last year, he said, “The central doctrine of science is the view that the laws of nature are inviolable.” He said, “Science and God are compatible as long as the latter, God, is content to stand on the sidelines once the universe has begun.” 

Now, I certainly shall not shrink the God that I advocate down into a deistic, non-interventionist first cause. No, the God I’m interested in is personal and active in the world. So the question is, “How do I answer Alan Lightman?” It’s straight forward. The presumption that the laws of nature are inviolable is just not a doctrine of science. Alan and a lot of other people are just wrong about that. Science’s method and its program is to describe the universe insofar as it is repeatable and follows universal laws, but science hasn’t got the slightest need to extrapolate that method and program into a presumption that everything that happens must be so describable. And the majority of the scientific heroes of history did not make that presumption.

I found Hutchinson’s phraseology interesting and I think it is apt: “The presumption that the laws of nature are inviolable is just not a doctrine of science.”

high-massA doctrine of science. I leave it to the reader to decide if science ought to have doctrines or if, as Professor Hutchinson says, “Science’s method and its program is to describe the universe insofar as it is repeatable and follows universal laws, but science hasn’t got the slightest need to extrapolate that method and program into a presumption that everything that happens must be so describable.”

I must also leave it to the reader to decide which of these eminent scientists is “doctrinally correct” and what that correctness means. However, when one of the most significant charges against religion is that it is absolutist, and one of the chief virtues alleged of science is that it evolves, I have to question the logic of the Doctrine of Inviolability.

As far as we can discern, everything in nature evolves, up to and including the universe, itself, to say nothing of our understanding of it. The idea that the laws of nature are inviolable seems to fly in the face of that. Moreover, it leads to the hubristic idea that once we have understood a law of nature, we need question it no further.

And that made me think of this passage from the writings of Abdu’l-Bahá, in which He says that, “Religion must be living, vitalized, moving and progressive. If it be non-progressive it is dead.” He concludes his comments with a question—a pertinent one in view of the subject of this blog: “Shall man gifted with the power of reason unthinkingly adhere to dogma which will not bear the analysis of reason?”

Next time: Refuting the Trinity (no, not THAT Trinity)

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11 thoughts on “Intelligence Squared #2: That Vague Old Notion Called God?

  1. Again, Maya, I get the impression this “debate” was one side happily pummeling away at an essential straw man, which the other side was happy to set up. Thus, a case of the debate (like World War II) not being won, so much as it was lost.

    Having engaged atheists numerous times in online forums, it seems as if most of the time and energy, is spent dispelling of the same old cliche notions of what “God,” “faith” and “religion” even are to begin with.

    But those notions are so deeply entrenched it’s difficult to get past them. (Collectively I call it/them — “McGod.”)

    Indeed, I myself was well into young adulthood before I even heard the term “Baha’i Faith.”

    And so, religion, as such, (“McGod”) made an atheist out of me for a while too.

  2. McGod? I love it! I’m going to use that.

    I never got all the way to atheism, myself, but I did drop kick myself out of any Christian churches.

    It does sadden me, though, when I hear people say things (as some of the youth in the NPR series on losing our religion) like: “I became an atheist because I couldn’t believe in hell.” Or “I couldn’t wrap my mind around original sin.”

    All religion is defined by a narrow subset. And honestly, I think that’s what contributes to the frequency with which I meet uninformed atheists whose conception of religion is appallingly narrow. They were not informed believers; it’s unfair to expect them to be informed unbelievers.

    I’m still trying to find a way to be heard when I say, “Er, no, actually I don’t believe X dogma.” No matter how many times I say it, the anti-theist may not hear it. And sometimes when they do they simply bolt because my religious beliefs are not part of their experience.

    1. They were not informed believers? But in fact, most conservative churches do associate hell with eternal suffering, based mainly on the book of Revelation, that speaks of eternal torment. So sure, some conservative churches do take the verses that talk about eternal destruction, death, perishing, literally, but most don’t.
      And likewise most conservative churches do believe in some form of an original sin doctrine, that we are cursed to be sinful, because of the fall, that Adam had sinned, see Rom. 5:12, see also following verses. Some don’t go all the way to believe that based on that fact, that all are conceived in the womb sinful, some do believe in fact the opposite extreme, that all children are innocent, until the age of accountability, but after that at least, we are all bound to be sinful, except for Jesus. And at least Catholics make an exception also for his mother Mary.

      1. Tom, we’re talking apples and potatoes. When I say informed, I mean a believer who has read the scriptures for themselves and understands them in context, not someone who paid attention on Sunday and absorbed what the minister was saying as “Bible truth”.

        I once had a strange experience while I was talking to a Christian woman at the Bahá’í booth at our county fair. She insisted that Bahá’u’lláh was the anti-Christ and I said, “There’s a scriptural test for that” and quoted 1 John 4: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world.” She all but leapt back from me, crying “NO! Jesus didn’t come in the flesh! That’s from the devil!” I tried to tell her it was from the Bible she claimed to believe in, but she’d already run away—literally.

        One of the chief complaints of ministers these days is that too few of their flock actually read the scriptures for themselves. Of course, as my own minister found out, that can backfire because it can raise a lot of questions. The fact that “most conservative churches” associate hell with eternal suffering (physical, for some reason) doesn’t mean that people who believe that are well-informed.

        Now, what’s interesting about when Jesus talks about “hell”, as He often does, He describes it by attributes. For example, He describes being cut off from the True Vine and fit for the fire, being thrown out into Gehenna—the big eternally burning trash heap outside Jerusalem—being shut out in the dark due to not being prepared for His return. This is a seemingly conflicting group of descriptions—is hell hot or cold? But as metaphors they all have one thing in common—the sinner is cut off, shut out, outside of God’s abode. This made complete sense to me when I read Bahá’u’lláh refer to hell as “remoteness from God.” What could be more tortuous in a real way than that?

        Original sin is another doctrine that makes no sense in context with the loving God revealed by Christ (especially in Matthew 7). The verses that people normally point to in these matters are ones that say that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children and take this to mean that God will punish a child because its parents (or the original parents) were sinful. Does that sound consistent with the God that Christ describes and exemplifies? If not, what do you think needs to change? Do we adjust the doctrine to reflect God’s reality, or change God to suit our interpretation?

        But there were course corrections for this idea, too, and they come from Ezekiel. He carefully and fully explains that God does not punish anyone for any sins but their own. The entire 18th chapter of Ezekiel deals with this subject. It begins this way:

        “The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel:
        “‘The parents eat sour grapes,
        and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?
        3 “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. 4 For everyone belongs to me, the parent as well as the child—both alike belong to me. The one who sins is the one who will die.”

        After laying out several different scenarios to make his point, Ezekiel ends this way, lest there be any doubt: 19 “Yet you ask, ‘Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?’ Since the son has done what is just and right and has been careful to keep all my decrees, he will surely live. 20 The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them. 21 “But if a wicked person turns away from all the sins they have committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, that person will surely live; they will not die. 22 None of the offenses they have committed will be remembered against them. Because of the righteous things they have done, they will live. 23 Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”

        So what does it mean to say that the sins of the father are visited upon the child? A child is impacted by every choice its parents make. If a mother takes drugs or drink during her pregnancy, if a father becomes abusive, or absent—these sins and moral failings will echo throughout a child’s life. This is not a statement of wrath, but a statement about reality.

        In context with what Ezekiel says and what Christ taught about the nature of God, the church dogma of original sin makes no rational sense.

        1. Wow, the woman was really uninformed, when she took the docetic view, that Christ did not really come in the flesh, he only seemed to have flesh, that is of course the view condemned by 1 John and 2 John as being an anti-Christ view. So with her defending docetism, she would be considered by conservative Christian pastors who are well informed about the Bible, as an anti-Christ, and so unsaved and not really Christian. After all, they similarly condemn Christian Science, which teaches that flesh is not real, it is a false thought. So they similarly don’t believe Christ came in real flesh, even though confusingly their Science and Health scripture also claims he came in the flesh. But that apparently means seeming flesh, not real flesh. Christian Science teaches that matter is not real. God is real, ideas are real, but matter is not real. So nobody can be ever really ill, it is just a delusion, a wrong thought. So for example you cannot break a chair, the chair is not material, it is an idea of God, and so it is eternal. So if you throw a chair into the fire, and you see it burn up, it is an illusion, the chair is still perfect and eternal. Really wild theology. So anyway, then Christian Science believers are considered to be anti-Christs, based on the definition in 1 John and 2 John. It is a modern version of docetism, which was a doctrine existing in some ancient Gnostic churches, though those churches did not take it as far, as to deny the reality of flesh in our bodies, they just denied the reality of flesh in Jesus’ body. And apparently the medieval Bogomils, Cathari and Albigenses had the same idea, they were basically remnants of gnosticism, until eliminated by force by the Catholic church, which did not tolerate any heresy in those days.
          So of course the Baha’i Faith could not be accused of being anti-Christs based on the definition of 1 John and 2 John, but still according to the New Testament they can be accused of being a false gospel, since they don’t believe the saving gospel doctrines of especially 1 Cor. 15:1-8, that Christ died for our sins, that he rose the third day, and afterwards was seen by the apostles and others, alive. And finally seen by Paul. As Abdul-Baha explained, you don’t really believe in his literal resurrection.
          But then you will counter that you don’t believe in everything in the New Testament anyway. So verses in the NT that condemn you, you either don’t believe or you explain them away as not literal. So conservative Christianity will not accept you as true Christians, as saved. And of course you will reply that you are not Christian, you are Baha’i. And you don’t even divide people as saved and unsaved, as does the New Testament, to you it is all relative, some are closer to God than others, it is relative distances from God rather than a sharp division between saved and unsaved, if I understand the Baha’i Faith correctly. You can of course use much more scriptural Baha’i terminology for that.
          Anyway, as you admitted above, you yourself do believe in a form of hell. That the sinner is cut off, outside of God’s abode. That it is remoteness from God. And that this remoteness is tortuous. And in fact even some conservative Christians who believe in eternal suffering in hell, some of them don’t believe it is literal physical suffering in fire, as you pointed out it can be described as darkness, which is not associated with literal fire, so they do take it similarly as you do, as separation from God, spiritual, or psychological suffering. Still, even that seems like a cruel view of God, that he would want anyone to suffer forever, or even a long time. It reminds me of the tortures committed by Communists, Nazis, or other dictatorships, or the torture approved by G. W. Bush. But then Bush surely believes in eternal torment in hell, as described in the book of Revelation. So no wonder torturing suspected terrorists is so popular among Republicans, they usually believe in eternal torment in hell. Regardless if they believe it is physical or just spiritual. It is so sad. So no wonder I like more the view of hell of those Christians who view it as eternal death, that the person will be totally dead, no more suffering or consciousness, just perishing and then eternal death. That would seem more consistent with the Christian view that God is infinitely wise and infinitely good. So the unrighteous will not bother us in heaven, they will be dead. Though there are also verses that seem to teach universal salvation, that God will cure the unrighteous of their evil, so they too can enter heaven. That could be consistent with the goodness of God too. Well, as usual, there are lots of contradictions in the New Testament, so it can be viewed as teaching any of these 3 different doctrines, based on one’s preference. Though the view of universal salvation usually leads the Christian to reject the inerrancy of the Bible, since some verses clearly teach the opposite, whether they teach eternal death or eternal suffering, but still not universal salvation.
          The church teaching that we are sinful, because of the fall, the sin of Adam, derives easily from the account in Genesis, that Adam and Eve were in paradise, very happy, until they sinned, and from that time on, the earth became a rather hostile place, with death, and suffering, with thorns and thistles. So in Christian theology that is called the Fall. And already in the Old Testament there are verses saying that everybody has sinned. And the New Testament says the same, except it makes an exception for Jesus.
          Now you quote Old Testament well, that nobody dies for the sin of his father or anyone, but for his own sin, This certainly creates a difficulty for the Christian view, that Jesus died for the sins of others, not his sin, but of others, including his mother Mary or his step-father Joseph. This would seem to contradict the verses you quoted from Ezekiel, as well as several other verses. Though I have seen Christian explanations how it can be harmonized. It is complex I think, I don’t exactly remember the argument. But Christians do make the argument anyway. I think I remember it has something to do with the church being the body of Christ, and so Christ died for his body, the sins of the church were put on him, at least that would be the argument of those who say that Christ died for the church only and not for everybody. But how it is explained by those Christians who believe he died for the sins of everybody, I don’t know. Though it too might have something to do with sins of people being put on him.
          Concerning Romans 14, some Christians take it to mean that we inherit the sin of Adam, which is the literal doctrine of original sin, while other Christians disagree, they say they don’t believe in original sin, in inheriting sin from Adam, they explain Rom. 14 as meaning simply that while we are not guilty of his sin, we have inherited sinful tendency, due to his sin, so we are all sinners, even though our guilt is for our sins, not for the sins of Adam. Clearly those verses were not explicit enough, to determine which view is correct. That is also a frequent problem with the New Testament, that it states some doctrines, but not clearly enough, so that different interpretations are possible, leading often to divisions among Christians. I feel the New Testament was much more badly written than the Old Testament, in the Old Testament, usually the doctrines are clear, rarely not. But in the New Testament, there is lots that is unclear, and also lots of contradictions. True, you can find contradictions in the Old Testament too, but usually on unimportant things, like things about historical facts. But in the New Testament there are many contradictions on important doctrines, and as Christians try to harmonize them, it leads naturally to many differences in doctrines among the different denominations, since different Christians harmonize them differently. Like I have mentioned above the disagreements on whether the early church was pacifist, so whether Christians should be pacifist or not. Christianity sure is a mess.

          1. I’m dividing this up because it’s so long, so bear with me.

            About the “unsaved” woman: Tom, my dear, I think you missed my point. The woman wasn’t expressing a docetic view. She was a fairly new Christian who had accepted Christ at a low point in her life and knew nothing about the Bible or what was in it other than what was stressed by her teacher that made her long for and love Christ. I think she heard the word ”flesh” and, given what she was almost certainly told about ”flesh”—that it is evil and weak etc.—she reacted to hearing me (someone she viewed as being a follower of “the Anti-Christ”) connecting “flesh” to Christ. She may have been saved by her love for Christ and, for all I know, by her sincere attempt to live by His word. I hope she asked her minister about the passage I quoted and he helped her understand what John was saying.

            I’d argue that just because someone is a conservative Christian pastor they are ”well-informed” about the Bible. The Pharisees were ”well-informed” about the Torah and yet failed to recognize Jesus as their Messiah. He had some very pointed things to say about their grasp of their own scripture. If the pastors judged the woman unsaved because she didn’t know her Bible well they would be wrong, would they not? It is not their place to judge. Christ says it is His word that will judge us in the ”last days.”

            The spirit of anti-Christ, though, has implications for everyday life (something I think a lot of people forget in a societal context). If God (and therefore Christ) is love, then what is the spirit of anti-Christ but hatred? If Christ teaches justice, mercy and faith, then the spirit of anti-christ is injustice, cruelty or even apathy, and faithlessness. What Christ proposes is that we can discern these things by judging something by its fruits. If someone claims to be a Christian or a Muslim or a Bahá’í etc. and is cruel and unjust hateful, then …?

            You wrote: the Baha’i Faith could not be accused of being anti-Christs based on the definition of 1 John and 2 John, but … they can be accused of being a false gospel, since they don’t believe the saving gospel doctrines …. As Abdul-Baha explained, you don’t really believe in his literal resurrection.

            Bahá’ís believe that Christ’s resurrection was a spiritual reality not a physical reality. But bear in mind that we believe that spiritual reality is REAL and the physical merely a reflection of it. We have very good reasons for this. First, God created the Universe. That means the spiritual reality came first, right? Second, Christ Himself says clearly what saves us: His Word. If He had meant that his blood saved us in a materialistic or magical sense, He would have said so. He also makes the point in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man that God will not raise one from the dead to prove Himself to men. God sent the Prophets, Jesus says, and they are the only proof we get or need. In addition, Jesus, over and over again, underscores His teaching that ”the Spirit is life; the flesh profits nothing”. In fact, here’s the context of that remark:

            John 6: 62-63 “What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.”

            ”So what if you saw a physical miracle?” Christ asks. ”It is the Spirit that is real, not the flesh.”

            This is a theme throughout Christ’s teachings and in the discourses of His disciples. Read the discourse that Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 15 starting at verse 35.

            “But someone will say, “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?” Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain…”

            So, according to Paul, we give up the physical body (the grain) for something different. He makes it clear how different in the next set of verses, when he uses grain and heavenly bodies to illustrate his point. Then he uses Christ’s resurrection as an example. He says (vs45): “There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being. The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” The last Adam is a reference to Christ. He goes on:

            “However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, and afterward the spiritual. The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is [the Lord] from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear [or let us bear] the image of the heavenly Man.”

            Paul wraps up his discourse by saying that ”flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” I’ve been told by ministers in the churches I’ve attended and by Christians with whom I was discussing the Bahá’í Faith, that if Jesus didn’t raise a physical body then our faith is in vain. I’ve never understood that attitude. The flesh is important to us; it is not important to God—which means it’s not important. Though Paul is clearly saying that Christ’s resurrection (and therefore ours) is a spiritual reality not a physical one, yet he says: ”Death is swallowed up in victory.”

            You wrote: But then you will counter that you don’t believe in everything in the New Testament anyway. So verses in the NT that condemn you, you either don’t believe or you explain them away as not literal.

            Tom, what I’ve been trying to get across to you is that Bahá’ís do not cherry-pick scripture. We approach the Bible understanding that there are contradictions, errors, mistranslations and word choices that can change the entire meaning of a verse. For example, the King James Bible renders Matthew 28:20b as “lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” But the Greek word that is rendered ”world” by King James’ translators is ”eon”, which (as the New King James Bible has it) means ”age.” There is, pardon the pun, a world of difference between those two concepts and that difference has had a huge impact on the Christian faith and its understanding of prophesy. Blood has been shed and schism caused by that single erroneous word choice. The Bahá’í approach to scripture is to look for foundational ideas and benchmarks against which seemingly contradictory ideas can be understood. So, if the apostles were teaching that we are saved by Christ’s blood in the sense of the blood sacrifices that their Hellenic audiences were acquainted with, you can compare that to what Christ says saves us: His Word and how well we keep it.

            How do we decide which ideas are foundational? That’s not hard. Does Christ lay emphasis on it? (“there are no commandments greater than these” or “for this is the Law and the Prophets”). Does He repeat it? (After the Last Supper, He repeats “obey My commandment—My commandment is: love one another). Does He not only repeat it, but repeat it in different forms? (“Love your neighbor as you love yourself” “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” “that ye love one another” “love your enemies” “inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these My brethren you have done it to Me”) Does He place it in a hierarchical context with other commandments? (“For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”) In other words, apply reason to scripture.

          2. This is the second part of my response which I started above. The third to follow.

            Re Hell: Bahá’ís do not believe in a physical hell that is a place of eternal physical torment. Nor do we view remoteness from God as necessarily being eternal. It is something that can be altered by moving closer to God through our own free will and through the intercessory prayers of others, and through the grace of a loving God. This seems quite rational to me, as opposed to the idea that for the sin of Adam, we are doomed to eternal physical torment unless we believe in a set of physical miracles and a blood sacrifice of God to God—who then returned to sit at the right hand of God. A study of history reveals why these particular dogmas got started, but they are not only irrational, they are in conflict with the teachings of Christ, Himself.

            So, to speak to your point about being ”totally dead” would you not prefer the idea that even one who is the most remote from God can find his way back to the Light if he is willing to change? Jesus says our salvation depends on how well we obey His commandment to love. Whether our salvation is absolute or relative only God knows. It is not for us to judge whether another person is saved or not. Or whether we’re saved or not. All we need to know is if we are truly trying to obey and love. Any lines we draw in the sand are irrelevant.

            You wrote: Though the view of universal salvation usually leads the Christian to reject the inerrancy of the Bible, since some verses clearly teach the opposite, whether they teach eternal death or eternal suffering, but still not universal salvation.

            Again, when doctrines become confusing, it’s helpful to return to a benchmark or keystone. Read carefully Matthew Chapter 7. In the passage which Jesus begins ”Seek and ye shall find…” He reveals the nature of God in this way: If, He says, your son asks you for bread. would you give him a stone? Or if he asks you for fish, would you give him a snake? If you, who are evil (or in error) know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more so does your Father in heaven now how to give good gifts to those who ask Him? I’ve memorized this passage because it was key to me understanding that what I had learned of salvation and Christ’s mission were manmade concepts and further, that Bahá’u’lláh and Christ (and Krishna, and Buddha, etc) were the same sort of Being. Christ’s testimony here makes that conclusion almost inevitable.

            Let’s look at the metaphor Christ uses: parent and child. I have three children. If I were to raise them according to the doctrine of many conservative churches, I would give all my love and attention to the eldest son while the others received only second-hand love passed through that child. I’d shower him with love; he would tell the other kids, ”Mom loves you.” I would educate that child, clothe him, and feed him, but let the others go without those things. I would, moreover, speak to even my favored child once when he was about 10 and then ignore him until he was on his death bed. I think you will agree that if a human parent did that, they’d end up in jail for a very long time. We would never accept that behavior in a flawed human being, yet some of us attribute it to our God.

            The doctrines that the churches I grew up in considered articles of faith did not reflect the teachings of Christ any more than the doctrines of the Pharisees reflected the teachings of Moses. Christ revealed love of God and of one’s fellow humans as the greatest commandments—the commandments upon which all others depend. The keystone which, if removed, causes the entire structure to collapse. Christ speaks harsh words to the Pharisees for forgetting that: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” Matthew 23:23-24

            More importantly, He makes a similar observation about the future: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness! Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock … But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand…” — Matthew 7: 21-26

            There is no avoiding the fact that Christ links salvation to hearing His word and doing it. So it behoves us to know His word and to be able to distinguish it from the words and ideas of men who tell us that our salvation depends upon us accepting a certain set of magical beliefs or performing a set of rituals. When a contradiction seems to arise, go back to the source. If words of the disciples seem to contradict the words of Christ, then go back and see if there’s any way to understand what they’re saying in context with His words that does not contradict. If there is not, is it not reasonable to take Christ’s words as the benchmark?

          3. The third part of my response to your last comment.

            You wrote: The church teaching that we are sinful, because of the fall, the sin of Adam, derives easily from the account in Genesis, …

            I was raised a Christian so I know all about the Fall as interpreted by generations of theologians. I also know there are two completely different creation stories in Genesis and that to the Jews it was a symbolic history of the Jewish people NOT a literal description of the creation of all life on this planet. If that were so, then who are the ”daughters of men” that the sons of Adam married? That interpretation of Genesis came much later. As did the idea of the Fall as Christian churches teach it today. In order for it to derive from the Genesis story, one must believe in a God that is irrational, capricious and even cruel.

            The blood atonement aspect of Christ’s sacrifice also arose after the fact. Mark is the oldest of the Gospels. In it, Christ says at the Last Supper: “This is My blood of the [new] covenant, which is shed for many.” Matthew adds ”for the remission of sins.” The point is that there are a number of ways we can understand the idea that Christ’s blood is shed for many without it being taken as blood atonement for the Fall or the sins of all mankind. These are ways that make more sense in context with the other things that Christ says about salvation. The doctrine of blood atonement does not fit easily with Ezekiel’s words about each of us being responsible for our own sins or Christ’s words that our salvation depends upon His word and how well we carry it out. It is this contradiction that has caused some Baptist assemblies to come up with the doctrine of dispensationalism. That is that salvation depended upon obeying Christ’s commandments until His crucifixion and resurrection, after that, it’s all belief in His atoning blood and grace. By that doctrine, all of Christ’s teachings were for naught. To a dispensationalist, Christ’s death and resurrection were all that mattered, His teachings were irrelevant—icing on the salvation cake. So, when Christ’s teachings seemed to contradict some of the apostles, they chose to give the apostles’ words more weight than Christ’s.

            It’s understandable how these ideas arose when you consider who the early apostles had to teach. Once they’d set out to teach Gentiles, pagan Romans, Greeks, et al they had a very difficult task. Jesus was comprehensible within the realm of Jewish thought as the Prophet foretold by Moses and the Messiah spoken of by Daniel. There is a prophetic and theological progression here—a progressive revelation of the faith of God to the Jewish people. But now, the apostles must teach people who had no clue who Moses was, who didn’t care about Daniel’s prophecy or of a Messiah—let alone the Messiah of another people. If you look at the way the message of the Apostles changed as they began teaching Hellenic peoples, you can see Hellenic concepts emerge—a physically resurrected god-man who is the physical son of God (like the Greek god Dionysus, who is the son of Zeus by a human woman), the idea of blood atonement as opposed to the love sacrifices as practiced by Jews. Absent is the idea of Christ as a Prophet like Moses (which the apostles were teaching originally), or the Promised one of a people.

            You wrote: Now you quote Old Testament well, that nobody dies for the sin of his father or anyone, but for his own sin, This certainly creates a difficulty for the Christian view, that Jesus died for the sins of others…. Clearly those verses were not explicit enough, to determine which view is correct. That is also a frequent problem with the New Testament, that it states some doctrines, but not clearly enough, so that different interpretations are possible, leading often to divisions among Christians.

            As you say, it is difficult to pick your way through the contradictions in the Bible if you hold a materialistic interpretation of its contents, give equal weight to every book and utterance, and expect it to be inerrant. I disagree that Christ’s teachings are not clear. They are crystal clear and simple, but the are hard to practice because we are creatures that love to have a place for everything and everything in its place. We dislike not knowing where we stand in relation to others. That we are to love our fellow human beings as God loves us (including our enemies) is easy to say and hard to do. Jesus remarks on how hard it is in Matthew 7. He calls it a narrow gate and a strait path ”and few there are that enter.”

            This is why God continues to speak age after age. It’s why Abraham, Joseph and Moses were followed by a series of minor prophets and then by Christ and why Christ was followed by Muhammad, the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh. It’s why Krishna and Buddha appeared in India; why Zoroaster appeared in Persia. It’s why the White Buffalo Calf woman and Deganawida appeared on the American continent and Fu-hsi in China, why there was someone who sparked the legends about Quetzalcoatl in Mezo-America and Ra in Egypt. The spiritual teachings we receive need to be renewed and new social teachings instituted that meet the capacity and needs of the people in each age and location.

            The Bible may not make sense all by itself (although it is a marvelous example of the principle of progressive revelation), but taken as one piece in a much larger puzzle—the true shape of which we are perhaps only now capable of seeing—it finds a cogent place.

          4. Of course conservative Christian pastors who know many Bible verses, who keep reading the Bible, they are well informed about the Bible, including the doctrines of the apostles that you say are wrong. So of course they are not well informed from the Baha’i view. They don’t interpret the Bible from the Baha’i view. They interpret the Bible as much as they can understand it, often literally. And of course different Christian pastors have different interpretations of some passages, so there are many denominations.
            You claim they just emphasize what is needed for salvation, and don’t find other words of Jesus of much importance. That is not my experience. Of course for conservative Christian pastors, salvation doctrines are more important than any other doctrines, after all, they believe one’s fate after death depends on it. But they consider other doctrines, sayings, commandments of Jesus to be also important. Most believe that even if you have faith in Jesus, if you live a horrible, criminal life, disobeying God all the time, then you don’t have the saving faith. So obedience to God and doing our best to avoid sins, and be sorry for sins, and not be in rebellion against God is important to almost any conservative preacher. So when Jesus says something is sinful, they take it seriously, just as when an apostle says something is sinful, they take that seriously too, they want to obey God.
            So just take the subject of divorce. The apostles have little to say about it, except for a controversial statement of Paul, that if an unbelieving spouse leaves you, you are not bound. So some take it as permitting divorce in that case, others disagree, say you are not bound to live with that spouse, but you can’t divorce him or her. But the most important commandments about divorce are by Jesus himself. In Mark and Luke, Jesus forbids divorce for any reason. In Matthew, in two passages, Jesus forbids divorce, except in case of fornication. So some Christians take it that Mark and Luke just happened to omit the exception, for which we should look to Matthew, and they interpret it that in case of adultery, one can divorce. Others say that no way, the statement in Matthew refers to fornication, not to adultery, so divorce is possible only in case of an invalid marriage, which is living in fornication, like for example in case of incestuous marriage, like a woman marrying her uncle. Or a marriage with a little child, who is too young to consent to marriage. That would be fornication, so it should be divorced. Or one church I am acquainted with, teaches that the verse refers to premarital sex, as the fornication that should not be done, and the couple can then split up, they interpret the divorce as applying also to unmarried couples splitting up. They were having sex as if married, though they were not married, so they can split up. Or a radio evangelist taught that the exception for fornication was Jesus’ reference to the Old Testament law, allowing divorce for uncleanness, which Jesus was now abolishing. So that is the teaching of the Family Radio Network, which still teaches the teachings of their first president and radio evangelist, Harold Camping, who has died several years ago. So all these viewpoints have one thing in common, that from the time of that commandment of Jesus, divorce has not been allowed to Christians for any reason whatsoever. So you say that the teachings of Jesus are easy to understand, obviously this is one of the cases where they are not.
            Still, one thing is clear, that the husband might abuse the wife, even injure her sometimes, he can be really dangerous, sure it is sinful behavior, but the wife is not allowed to divorce him for any of that dangerous behavior. Now would a Manifestation of a good God teach any such a horrible doctrine? Surely not, in my opinion. I can’t accept the idea that a good God would send Manifestations of himself to teach such horrible, cruel doctrines. Sure you believe in progressive revelation, that previous generations were not ready for the best doctrines, but does that mean that God sent Manifestations to people to teach them horrible doctrines instead? I can’t believe that. Prophets came and changed views of various people, they wanted to know what God wants or what gods want of them, they were ready to change, they did not need horrible doctrines, like sexist doctrines, slavery, genocide etc. to satisfy them. I am sure that people were ready for fair, just, good doctrines even in ancient times. For example the Essene sect of Judaism opposed slavery, the Essenes accepted that new teaching. Christianity did not oppose slavery, Jesus never taught against it. Yet you call Jesus a Manifestation of God, and you don’t call any Essene preacher a Manifestation of God. In some tribes, women have always had important positions of leadership, they did not consider women to be inferior at all. But in Christianity, Jesus taught the Law of Moses, with its various sexist laws, and apostles taught by him taught that women have to obey their husbands, have to be silent in the congregation, cannot preach, cannot become bishops, elders or deacons, these roles were limited to men who have one wife, so since they were against same sex marriage or any homosexual sex, then this automatically excluded all women. So even a woman with one wife would not qualify to be ordained as deacon, elder or bishop. Would a Manifestation of God teach such terrible sexism? I don’t think so. People were ready to accept non-sexism, but were not taught it. And the false doctrine that faith is necessary for salvation, often expressed by Jesus, so people who did not believe in him were condemned, see for example John 3:18, so no excuse for ignorance, would a Manifestation of God teach such a cruel doctrine, condemning me, my sister, my late mother, her parents to punishment due to our not knowing of Jesus being the Christ, would a Manifestation of a good God preach such a cruel doctrine? I don’t think so. People were ready to believe that faith is not necessary, that their ignorant ancestors are not condemned, yet Jesus did not preach such a good doctrine, he preached a cruel, unfair doctrine instead. That is not a progressive revelation that I would expect from any Manifestation of a good, fair, just God. That is a revelation of a God who is in some ways bad, unfair, unjust. I hope a good God exists. But if instead a bad, unfair, unjust or at least in some ways a bad, unfair, unjust God is what we have to deal with, then this world is in trouble. That is not a God I hope for that hopefully exists. Of course the Bible does claim that God is good, just and fair. But it presents God as issuing some unfair, bad, unjust, even cruel commandments. That is not the God I hope for.

          5. Tom, your comments have become so long and complex it’s hard to winnow out what you’re really asking.

            Let me just speak to the subject of interpreting scripture (or any other writing intended to convey ideas.) To understand the intentions of the author(s) you can look at several elements of the writing to determine what’s of critical importance and what’s not. Let’s look at this specifically with the teachings found in the Gospel and other Holy Books.

            First of all, understand that the Holy Books are books of history, of prophecy, of human philosophy and of divine prescription and that it’s important to know which is which. The philosophizing of a human being found in Proverbs is not the same as prescriptive teachings given by Christ or Bahá’u’lláh, for example. I think that’s pretty straightforward.

            Second, you need to distinguish between the doctrines cobbled together by human beings and the teachings of the Prophet. Women not being able to be deacons has nothing to do with the teachings of Christ. That’s something that men later decided. Christ had nothing to say on the subject, but he did pay much attention to his female disciples even if the “church fathers” later did not. Perhaps his example is telling.

            Beyond that, you can read scripture looking for cues about what is an important spiritual teaching and what is not in the eyes of the Prophet himself. Here are four things to look for when reading scripture.

            1) Does the Prophet emphasize or grant primacy to particular teachings clearly and unambiguously. For example, when asked what was the greatest commandment (and what led to eternal life) Christ said (paraphrased) “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” He added, “there are no commandments greater than these,” and in another place, “upon these two commandments all the others depend.” There’s no argument that can be made to grant any other teachings primacy. These commandments must come before all others and all others must be interpreted and practiced in context with these two.

            2) Does the Prophet emphasize a particular teaching through repetition? The commandment to love our neighbor as we love ourselves is a spiritual principle that Christ repeats in various ways and in different circumstances throughout the Gospel record. He tells his disciples three times before he goes to the cross that they attain eternal life by obeying his commandment to love one another. Preaching to the masses in his sermon on the Mount, he expresses the same commandment as “whatsoever you would that men should do to you, to so to them.” He adds, for emphasis, “for this is the Law and the Prophets”. He goes further in telling his followers that they must show this love not just to each other, to their (even foreign) neighbors, but to their enemies. That the Apostle Paul understood the importance of this love is evidenced by his own words on the subject in 1 Corinthians 13 in which he says explicitly that even faith is trumped by love.

            3) Does the Prophet emphasize the teaching by illustrating it with a story, metaphor, or parable? That is, does he try to get the idea across by likening it to something his audience has experience with? Jesus does this to illustrate who “your neighbor” is when giving the commandment to love one’s neighbor. He chooses a Samaritan to make his point because the Samaritans and Jews so hated and distrusted each other that violence between the two groups was common at the time. He also gives metaphors when speaking prophetically about the coming of the kingdom of God, using a woman kneading leaven into dough, a tree growing from a tiny seed into a huge tree, and the subtle evidences of spring to show that it will be a long, slow process.

            4) Is there a clue in the circumstances under which the Prophet gives a teaching? For example, Christ links eternal life to obeying the commandment to love one another three times in the hours before he goes to the cross. I think you would agree that what he would tell his disciples under these circumstances must be very important indeed. He tells them nothing of blood atonement, or the Trinity, or his resurrection, but only repeats “Obey me. Love each other.”

            If you don’t approach scripture with some idea of what to look for, it can be confusing and you can end up cherry-picking. I’ve heard Christians justify violence against people of other faiths (and other ethnicities) based on a single verse in the Gospel in which Christ says, “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.” I’ve heard them justify cruelty to undocumented immigrants by his statement that we must “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” completely ignoring the context of his teachings about loving everyone, and even the end of that very sentence, “and render unto God what is God’s.”

            If you want to understand the God of Christ, read Matthew 5-7 — the Sermon on the Mount. It was chapter 7, in fact, that made me realize that God could not have restricted His revelation to the three years Christ taught in Jerusalem, because He is the sort of just, merciful God, you want Him to be—that, in fact, we stumbling, half-animal humans NEED Him to be. Try to understand what the stories of the prodigal son and the lost sheep say about that God. Try to understand why Christ links himself back to the revelation of Moses, and forward the revelation of the next Prophet. Try to understand that the God of Christ is a God who teaches us not according to His perfection, but according to our flawed capacity. And most of all, understand that God’s message is always delivered first to the people most in need. As Jesus puts it, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” — Matthew 9: 13

            In any event, there have been revelations since the time of Christ. We have teachings for THIS age and that’s good, because we can’t go back in time and truly understand what reality looked like to the Israelites wandering in the desert or the Jews trapped in Jerusalem under the heel of Roman oppression. I can tell you this: before Moses gave the law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (as barbaric as that may seem) there was no real law. There were no jails, no courts of law, no codes of justice. The death of one individual could result in the wiping out of the guilty party’s entire family or clan and the confiscation of all their belongings. The system of justice that Moses brought raised the bar for human behavior among that people at that time.

            We live in a different age. The bar is much higher. Bahá’u’lláh wrote: O son of man! If thine eyes be turned towards mercy, forsake the things that profit thee, and cleave unto that which will profit mankind. And if thine eyes be turned towards justice, choose thou for thy neighbor that which thou choosest for thyself. Humility exalteth man to the heaven of glory and power, whilst pride abaseth him to the depths of wretchedness and degradation. (Bahá’u’lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf)

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