Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Answer to a Skeptic

There are numerous questions one would answer to skeptics when one holds to a conviction in a Faith. Some of them are asked again and again. Of all questions posed to Christians, none as I have found are so common and so sensitively juxtaposed as the question of a long history of evil by religious people. I have answered this to inquiring friends by way of logic, history, reasoning from the Bible and pointing to human nature as a root cause rather than religion. Still the questions keep coming and the answerer is weak from answering.

The older I get the more confident I am about God's faithfulness and the more cynical I am about human nature- the grand claims of nobility that lies within the human heart. In a way I'm a skeptic too. I'm a skeptic as to the motivations of the questioner after religion. Ten years of Christian life and detecting insincerity in questioners as well as in my own heart has compelled me to question our very intentions. Often we desire that God's will be not done- though as Christians we would not admit it to even ourselves. When answering unbelievers, I remind myself that regardless of the intention my answer must be consistent, logical, sensitive, compelling and interested. Secondly I must remind myself that it is the Holy Spirit who accomplishes a contrite spirit and a believing heart, not my words.

Here is journalist Dilip D'Souza's article on this subject, titled 'Why I am disillusioned with religion'. As I read this I thought to myself, 'Aren't the answers clear enough? Hasn't the world heard the apologetic of years past, in fact of over 2000 years why this happens?' Then I think to myself the many articles that this journalist has written, many of them noted for their sensitivity to the subject and sincerity of the cause. In fact even this article acknowledges the good that Christianity has displayed; and that the evil spawned has been from a minority of people.

To satisfy my urge to answer D'Souza, I decided to summarize my answer in 5 parts:

1. The dynamics of exclusive beliefs
2. Religion over irreligion
3. The dangers of being simply lukewarm
4. The nature of the human heart and alternate theories such as Maya.
5. The 4 questions each worldview needs to answer

1. The dynamics of exclusive beliefs

D'Souza's argument is not that Christianity's doctrine leads one to violence. Perhaps a case could made by more insincere inquirers that the Jewish people built their nation through war, but the sincere inquirer would note that Christianity forbids murder and Christ's example forbids conversion by force. D'Souza's point is that while there is good that Christianity has done there is also evil that Christians have committed. As he writes, "What else were those Crusades but a resort to the sword in the name of Christianity?" and "Richard (King Richard I) was a cruel man who ordered Jews killed in London, presided over a massacre in Cyprus while journeying to fight his Third Crusade, and had thousands of Muslim prisoners killed at Acre (then Akko) during the war. Such was his Christian kingliness."

If we Christians claim that he was not of the faithful, we have no way of proving we are right. After all God judges our hearts, and though our faith may be manifest in our works, we are not without sin. The Bible acknowledges the believer's fight against the world, the flesh and the devil. All we can say is that he wasn't acting from Christian character. But who among us is flawless? We need a better explanation for this contradiction if we believe that Christianity is indeed the Truth that joins us in communion with God.

Implicit in Dilip's question may be the question of exclusivity, why Christians exclude non-adherents in God's plan for salvation. This is in my view a make or break question. Unlike many other philosophies, Christianity is not an evolving religion. It may bear new interpretations for our day but it cannot be treated as a faith that can be added to. For instance when Christ says 'I'm the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the Fther except by Me,' we cannot expand the criteria to accomodate our difficulties with exclusivity. This would make it something other than Christianity. The skeptic questions whether holding on to an exclusive faith is a good thing for us in the here and now. If it engenders prejudice and hatred toward others, then how could it possibly by a religion of Love? The Christian may answer that there are exclusivists who have loved sinners and hated their sin; that Christ's character and example point to the correct thinking in Christianity. But the skeptic remains unconvinced even when the Christian points to credible examples of Christian virtue among exclusivists. For insincere skeptic the good examples don't matter- they will find fault with any of these. For the sincere ones the scandals stand out more than the noble deeds. For them the crusades are the biggest stumbling block. Here we hit a roadblock. A sincere (I believe) skeptic like Dilip asks us why there should be evil at all, despite the prevalence of good among Christians. The presence of evil stands out glaringly. We need to move on to the next section.

2. Religion over irreligion

Let's take a step back and assess what evil each major world religion has done, and then what irreligion has done. By irreligion I mean people who advocate or instituted atheism as state policy.

Christianity, Judaism and Islam are exclusivist religions, all Semitic. The evil perpetrated by their adherents have been well-documented through history. Dilip's article is pretty descriptive of some of them. The Dharmic religions- Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism- are not without their history of violence either: the wars of the Guptas, the Mauryas, et al look good in glorified national history texts, but in reality this must have been a horrendous shedding of blood: Asoka's disillusionment over the world surfaced after a violent battle, and the Hindu epics describe wars fought by warriors who were often favoured by the gods not for their moral incorruptibility but other factors such as their valour in battle and their devotional tapas toward these gods. We don't have much written history prior to the establishment of the Islamic sultanates in India (themselves often violent and predatory), but heroes such as Sivaji were no saints either, regardless of what popular opinion in India might have to say about it.

Animistic traditions, primitive religions, American Indian spirit-worship, nature worship- they are all replete with records of violent acts. So is religion something irredeemably violent, after all?

This brings us to the point to which atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, et al object vehemently- that the moral failure that irreligion brings is not simply a coincidence but a systemic flaw inherent in trading religion for humanism. The statistics are overwhelming. Josef Stalin, no friend to religion, has been held accountable for 20 million deaths by conservative estimates. Wikipedia states that the actual number could be anywhere between 3 and 60 million. Millions died of privation, the Ukranian famine, execution, torture and deportation to Siberia. In addition, much of his ire was directed against Jewish people, making this a 'religious' crime to some, but in reality part of a purge against all religion.

Mao Zedong's roster of such killings range between 2 and 5 million, with another 1.5 million sent to 'reform through labour' camps. Pol Pot, considered one of the worst mass murderers in modern history was supported by Mao in his extermination of one-fifth of his country's population (1.7 million). These were all influenced by Marxist theory and were activist atheists. Hitler's religion has been the subject of considerable debate. But consider these facts: he was raised Roman Catholic but as a schoolboy left the religion and never again attended Mass. He was critical of Chrstianity as he knew it but wanted to reinvent it instead of throwing it away- particularly as a way to reinforce anti-Semitic ideology. However he also made statements like "National Socialism and religion cannot exist together" and "The heaviest blow that ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity. Bolshevism is Christianity's illegitimate child. Both are inventions of the Jew. The deliberate lie in the matter of religion was introduced into the world by Christianity" and "Let it not be said that Christianity brought man the life of the soul, for that evolution was in the natural order of things."

This article gives his pro and anti-Christian statements. The impression one get is that one cannot read his mind from his public statements. For him these statements were only the means to his end: that of establishing the supremacy of the Third Reich over the world. So what did he really believe? I can' say for sure, but one thing as the article states, is clear: Hitler was a materialist and rationalist. He worshipped himself. In other words he believed that Man was the measure of God, specifically one man- himself. I believe that this ideology is at the heart of atheism. This article says: "Frederick Nietzsche, the atheist philosopher who coined the phrase "God is dead" had a big effect on the worldview of Adolf Hitler, who took some of Nietzsche's more strident writings as his philosophical road map when he launched World War II (Hitler even gave copies of Nietzsche's books to Mussolini). "

Together these tyrants have been responsible for more deaths than other killings in the last 20 centuries put together. Could one could that irreligion is by nature violent? I would say that most atheists by and large are not violent people. But my point is that the difference in these individuals is in scale, not in kind. Irreligion does engender indifference to certain values: in history this has manifested most commonly as erotomania (the love of pleasure) or megalomani (the love of power), both eschewed or held in balance by most religions.

3. The danger of being lukewarm

My grandma was always suspicious of committed believers. Her dad was one, and though his character has been considered Christ-like and beautiful, the time he spent on witnessing the Good News took time away from his very profitable business, landing his family in very dire straits. This and other such experiences lead well-meaning people to consider having a strong opinion as being dangerous. Theirs only to live and die normally. If that is all we think matters, then we are really not very different from the irreligious. A 'normal' indifferent way of living is hardly normal in practice- the petty squabbles, jealousies, narrow-mindedness and prejudice are all part of this seemingly idyllic existence. As I said the difference in immorality is in scale, not in kind. Besides, I don't believe anyone could truly be indifferent to truth. Each one has a worldview- in fact Indifference itself is one. Also I think the pursuite of Truth about ourselves and our Creator are the desires of each heart, though this may be a latent realization, often in times of trouble.

4. The Nature of the human heart and alternative theories such as Maya

Dilip concludes his essay this way: "And given all the bloodshed that lack of understanding has caused, all through history, I wonder if that impossibility is intrinsic to religion itself.Maybe to humanity itself." Christianity holds that the human heart is a heart of darkness, of evil. The inherent, original sin manifests itself quickly- it's present in a child stealing a cookies as it is in as despot who commits genocide against his own people. Other religions consider this to be a contradiction. The Advaita stream of Hindu thought posits that evil and good are illusory, in fact the human condition with its contradictions of nobility and evil are all Maya, an illusion. The only way out of this is Moksha, a moment when one realizes that his inner self the Atman is part of the universal reality, the Brahman; and nothing else matters. This thought in several interpretations is at the heart of all Dharmic faiths. The 'cloud of unknowing' that these faiths talk about is a concept that fails to strike a chord in me, because I acutely feel the problem in myself- that snare of sin which compels me to do what I hate to do.

5. Four questions a worldview needs to answer

These are 4 essential questions each worldview needs to answer:

1. Who is God? (or what is God's nature?)
2. What is the human condition?
3. The problem of sin and transcendence
4. What is our destiny?

These are the pivotal questions on which hang concepts of salvation, forgiveness, love, wisdom, purpose, eternity and so on. These are the points at which each worldview differs and we are compelled to choose. If faith were simply about do's and dont's then I'm not so sure we need a religion. After do's and don'ts (whether they are actually based on righteousness or not) exist in every society- atheistic, animistic, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Shinto and so on. To focus on moralizing alone would be to just set up basic rules for social conduct, not very different from etiquette. Besides, the legislative systems in each country further quantifies offenses based on their perceived gravity. Such a concept of religion leaves us empty- we don't need blind rules. We need, most of all, a relationship on which the pillars of life and living rest. But more about that later. Let's go over each of these 4 questions.

Who is God? My mom used to tell me that God was an impersonal form of energy that pervaded the universe. This was surprising. I don't know if she would say the same thing now, but she's always been a Catholic and apparently found nothing wrong in reconciling faith in the person of Jesus with this idea of God as an 'oblong blur' in the universe. The fact is, Christianity ascribes personhood to God. God is a person with a personal nature and character. Other religions posit his having an impersonal character, some posit him just being the reality of all there is. Which brings us to the other point- God is not the universe or the matter, nor is he present in the matter. He created the matter as something other than Himself. He pervades space and time and is not bound by it. The picture is that of a Creator holding all creation in the palm of his hand. His presence is around it, but creation itself is separate from the hand.

What is the human condition? All religions need to explain this. Atheism simply states that the human condition is amoral, evolved and unnecessary. Not that all atheists believe that humans themselves are to be eradicated as a race, but that their significance to the earth is none- they could well be non-existent and the universe will go on. Many pantheistic religions believe that the human condition is a cloud of unknowing. They posit that the human being is in a trap of illusion, some posit that Man is caught up in desire and this desire itself is false; therefore to achieve a break from this he needs to let go of desire or break from the cloud of unknowing. The state to which he then arrives is the place of liberation wherein he 'realizes' union with reality. Here we must pause to ask the question: why do religions need to explain the human condition at all? Isn't religion more about God than man? Surely more theology and less anthropology is what we need, isn't it? Thre reason is this: whatever we do to deny it, we feel the tug of contraditction within ourselves. We do things which we don't feel comfortable doing; somehow we feel we shouldn't be doing them; we see beauty and order and love in the natural world around us, but we see it marred by cruelty and danger and loss and death. We cherish our relationships, but we see all relationships end in either dispute or death. We love to see new born babies and cherish their innocence, but they grow older and often less lovable, and they eventually die. We are unable to reconcile with the passage of time. We are continually surprised by how a person has grown older or taller or stronger or wiser, although this is to be only expected. We long for a better tomorrow, a better place, a better situation... a remedy. That begs the question, a remedy to what? Christianity calls it: Sin. All that follows after it- death, dispute, evil, trouble, as well as our longing for a better place and time point to this reality that is undeniable. Christianity believes that human beings are born into sin and we have a propensity to sin. Our nature longs to sin. After our first parents sinned against God's loving provision for them and breaking His plan for their lives, the human race fell headlong into the terror of rebellion against God. The propensity of our race changed from being responsive and submissive to God to being separated from God and naturally rebellious. We chafe at His authority, fear and distrust His sovereignity, doubt His love. We have also been deceived by earthly philosophy that bears a resemblance of His truth but is not quite it. That is the human condition. It's also the closest explanation I can identify with. I feel the tug of sin more than the cloud of unknowing. I sense temptation within my bones. It's right here within me and it's undeniably, irrevocably true. That brings us to point 3.

The problem with sin is that it is a vicious circle, a quagmire, a storm that cannot be tamed by discipline, devotion, love or by knowledge of law. Our best efforts may have kept us from being depraved enough as our fellow man, but deep inside we know it's just not enough. We have this urge to satisfy something or someone with our deeds and our lives. We live for certain people often- our kids, our spouses, or parents and other loved ones. We find significance in fighting causes for our nations, animals, the oppressed... But it just doesn't go away. Every worldview accounts for this or copes with it- Buddhism struggles to break free of desire through meditation, Hinduism meditates on union with the Ultimate reality and through the doctrine of karma, brings in consequences to our. Atheism denies sin, but loudly proclaims that we must build our own heaven on earth, as typified in Nietzsche's Superman. All of this fails because it fails to define the problem correctly. Desire in itself is not sin. Sinful desire is a corruption of godly desire. Meditation becomes escapism when it ignores the reality of our own sin. The doctrine of karma which promises rebirth after rebirth as karmic penalties is a pretty good picture of the remorseless victimization of sin, but gives us no solution to the dilemma. Atheism by denying sin cuts itself off from logic and reason, and fails to explain satisfactorily this fundamental contradiction we live with. What does Christianity say? The Judeo-Christian worldview defines sin as unrighteousness, meaning not being right with God. God is the moral law-giver and all good flows from him. Our understanding of good also follows from our understanding of his very nature. This worldview also says that we cannot be right with God by our merits or penance. Nothing we do forms a sufficient penalty. The only acceptable payment for sin is Christ's sacrifice- the price paid by the blamess for the sake of the sinful. When we cannot transcend into His kingdom he transcends into our world and reaches out to us to accept his invitation. When we could not ascend he descended and carries us with Him on his ascent.

Our destiny- as Christians we know that we will enter heaven- the very presence of God. The Christian life also clarifies for us our earthly purpose. In some mysterious way, as CS Lewis also notes, our earthly good works add up for us heavenly rewards so that when we look back on our life we know that all this was so from the beginning of the ages. The plan unfurls and we see better. A few months ago my friend remarked to me about an unbelieving friend of his who held that the only motive Christians could have for wanting to convert him was the prospect of 'riches' in heaven. What these riches are, we do not know. Would these e power, material well-being or other pleasure? The Bible speaks in figurative terms because Heaven is unlike nything else we have seen. I think every believer knows that whatever else heaven may be, it is the place where the Lord will be adored and worshipped and we will known Him as He knows us. Perhaps the reward is just that- the knowledge of God; and the more we conform to His image here on earth the more we grow closer to Him, the better glimpse we have of His heart. His desire is to have more of his people know Him, and this desire is what compels the believer to take His message out. When a new believer is born again, the Bible says that the agels rejoice, and so do we. It's more akin to the joy new parents experience than anything else. Such joy is not because now they have power over someone elseor even completely because of the joy a baby brings to themselves, but they are joyful for the birth itself, for the baby's own sake, for the fact that this baby has so much to learn and know and accomplish. Thus they rejoice at her wonder at seeing a sunset ro a firefly and love to impart what little they know. They long to be better parents than their own parents were and to make sure that the baby does better in life than they ever did. Their purpose for her is her character and wisdom and knowledge. Such gift-love is unknown in any other relationship. While in most cases the believer's joy in another believer does not compare to this, the unselfishness and freedom to rejoice in another's excellence of character has close parallels. The unbeliever cannot grasp it just as she cannot grasp the presence of God in the most mundane things. As poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning put it:

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes -
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries

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