Saturday, November 26, 2005

My thoughts on church attendance

In the comment thread of an earlier post, my blog buddy, Hammer, paid me a generous compliment, when he wrote:
One of the reasons I enjoy discussing things with you is your uniqueness. (Is that a word?) Simply put, I meet people every day who claim to be Christians, but don't go to church, because they "don't like organized religion" or have a similar argument. To them all, I have said, "Poppycock."

However, you seem to fit the relatively stringent criteria one would need to fit in order to both be genuinely Christian and genuinely dissatisfied with the church to a point where you forsake it, but do not forsake your faith.

First of all, Hammer, I appreciate the fact that you’ve given me credit for intellectual honesty. It’s not something I typically receive from fellow believers. That said, I suppose it now falls to me to justify my conviction.

I’ll begin by stating what I do not believe, with respect to the various components of—for lack of a better phrase—“a mystical world-view”. A good example of the polar opposite of my thinking (sent to me via e-mail from my old friend Jon, who remains bloggless) appears on the Toronto Sun website, in the Lifestyle section.
[Alex Presenza and Roger Lapointe] founded True World Care Inc. to urge people to "be honest with themselves" about the shortcomings of religion, the "horrors of fundamentalism," and the problems with most of our religious texts.

A world without the Bible, the Koran, the Torah? It's a step in the right direction, say Alex Presenza and Roger Lapointe.

"TWCs founders, two God loving ex-missionaries, could not live within the contradictions, pain and pat answers brought on by blind faith and religious texts namely The Old & New Testaments, and the Koran," they say on their website "We've always heard it said 'it's all a matter of interpretation.' TWC is here to say 'it's the text's themselves!' "

There are several problems here—namely the conflation of the following: religion in general, the three major Abrahamic texts, fundamentalism and blind faith. Moreover, it’s more than a little disingenuous to compare the New Testament with the Koran, as though there were any substantive commonalities between them. This tactic is no more than a thinly-veiled attempt to promulgate a form of spiritual relativism, in that it casts doubt on the notion that objective truth exists.
Author Karen Armstrong (The Battle for God) writes that it is both wrong and dangerous to read literal truth into religious books. Literalism is a product of the modern world, she claimed in an article last August in the Guardian Weekly.

With just one sentence, “literal truth” is dispensed with, if indeed such is put forth in a “religious book”. This is quite misleading, but sadly not unusual, as no distinction is made between the various mystical texts. The other implication is that literalism and truth are mutually exclusive. The fact is that texts in general and the Bible in particular ought to be understood in the sense in which they were intended. This means that a “wooden literal” reading is not always appropriate, but at times it is—it depends on the text. And as I’ve said before: context and intent are always determinative of meaning. The veracity of a given text, however, is another matter altogether.
"Before the modern period, Jews, Christians and Muslims all relished highly allegorical interpretations of scripture. The word of God was infinite and could not be tied down to a single interpretation," writes Armstrong. "Preoccupation with literal truth is the product of the scientific revolution, when reason achieved such spectacular results that mythology was no longer regarded as a valid path to knowledge."

Leaving behind the fact that “all” of any group rarely—if ever—does X, the idea that theologians of the three major religions (generally speaking) relegate the bulk of their texts to high allegory is absurd. It is true, however, that portions of the texts do utilize allegory, in addition to metaphor, parables and poetry. But the intended meaning is not lost (or shouldn’t be) because ideally, a serious student is aware of the various literary tools that have been used.

Perhaps the most egregious error that Armstrong makes (though not uniquely) is the assertion that, ”Before the modern period…The word of God was infinite and could not be tied down to a single interpretation” In other words, Armstrong is suggesting that the Word of God means everything and nothing at once, depending upon ones interpretation. I’m hard-pressed to imagine a more ridiculous proposition. It’s as though logic and reason were optional—as if contradictory interpretations were equally valid.

So, what do I believe about objective truth? Well, I believe that reality exists and that it can, theoretically, be objectively quantified. Reality is what it is. This is not to say that nothing is subjective. Quite the contrary—everyone has their own personal tastes, desires, etc. But ones subjectivity cannot erase objective reality, or if you like, objective truth. Likewise, I don’t think that everything is subjective—that there is no absolute truth. On the other hand, I reject the notion that mere consensus is proof of truth. It matters not whether something has been believed for millennia or a minute. This is because I don’t trust fallible men (or women) to be the final arbiters of truth. For truth is extremely resilient—it can withstand innumerable tests. The only thing that stands to lose from rigorous examination is that which is objectively false.

In light of my cherished (and hopefully healthy) skepticism, I’m very particular about the company I keep. This is especially true when it comes to the consideration of whether or not I will associate myself with a specific church. It’s not something I take lightly. That is, I’ll not attend a church just because “it’s what Christians do”. No, my primary concern is with fidelity to the Bible, the Word of God. Thus far, I’ve been forced to conclude that the mainstream Christian sects have doctrinal positions that, in my view, miss the mark to one degree or another. To be clear, I’m not in search of “the perfect church”, as no such thing exists. I’m just not convinced that regular meetings—in the form that they’ve taken post-Reformation—are a prerequisite for spiritual growth. Moreover, I fear that contrived ritual (i.e. opening prayer, three hymns, sermon, benediction and closing prayer) may actually be a hindrance to spiritual maturity. One cannot be spoon-fed information indefinitely and expect to learn how to think independently. That may be an oversimplification, but I think my point is clear.

More from Hammer in the aforementioned comment thread:
Where I come to a different conclusion from you is this - are these challenges in the church of today worth abandoning the joy of corporate worship and the benefits of accountability and fellowship? Furthermore, and an area which I think would be more important to you, do you allow the "church" to continue to err, or do you attempt to improve it?

There are two separate issues, which I’ll address in order. By the “church of today”, I’m sure he means the physical gathering of Christians, rather than The Church, which consists of all regenerates, regardless of affiliation. So, although I’ve not participated in corporate worship for many years, I’m firmly ensconced within The Church—I have a lifetime membership that was purchased by Christ. But with respect to the benefits that Hammer mentioned, I can honestly say, from personal experience, that those benefits are mitigated by honest theological and doctrinal differences. I should say though, that there was never any animosity between the various groups I’ve visited and myself. They were non-the-wiser, as I typically only made it to a few services before I got a handle on what was being taught (this was in the waning years of my church-going experience).

The reason for that leads to the second issue in Hammer's comment. The truth is that I worry less about correcting the errors of others than I once did. I should qualify that. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that most people join a congregation, initially at least, because of its denominational association. That is, they already accept the core teachings and doctrinal positions of the parent denomination. Therefore, it’s all but impossible to effect a course correction, with respect to entire churches. That would be the responsibility of the Holy Spirit.

Bear in mind that I recognize the sovereignty of God, which relieves me (and others) of the burden of evangelizing the entire world single-handedly. Speaking of which, hyper-evangelism seems to be the driving force behind many Christian sects. And more often than not, evangelical doctrines and teaching do not take “election” into account, which may lead to capacity crowds on Sunday, but not all of whom are regenerates. If the unvarnished truth were delivered from the pulpit, I suspect that there would be more empty seats and far fewer “mega churches”.

As for me, I’m content in the knowledge that the Holy Spirit inspired Philippians 2:13 “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure”.. I not only believe that, I’m eternally grateful for it…literally.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Change of pace

Alright folk(s), here’s the deal: I’ll be guest-blogging at Eric’s Grumbles, which means that my politically oriented posts—assuming that there will be some—shall heretofore appear at Eric’s place, until such time as The Liberty Papers, a liberty-oriented group-blog, is up and running.

My thinking at present is that I’ll use libertopia to explore my thoughts on religion, theology and related topics. That’s my tentative plan anyway. We’ll see how it all shakes out.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

A bit about Belief

As evangelical Christians continue to gain influence and political power in America, I'm increasingly aware of the fact that my beliefs differ—to varying degrees—from those in the “mainstream” of modern Christianity. Because of this, I’m reluctant to refer to myself as a Christian, opting instead to self-identify as a theist. It is the case, however, that I’m fairly well-versed in the Bible and do, in fact, believe that Jesus is God. Furthermore, I believe that God is triune and that each member of the Trinity is equally and fully God (one deity, three distinct persons).

Despite the depth of my convictions, I do not associate with any sect; whether Protestant, Catholic or other. In short: I’m non-religious, in that I don’t engage in any of the trappings and rituals that have become part and parcel of Christianity. But more importantly, I think that the theological understanding of the major sects has—over time—perverted the original meaning of the immutable Truths of the Bible. A parallel can be drawn between a misinterpretation of the US Constitution and a misinterpretation of the Bible (more on that later). Regardless, I’m convinced that Protestant teaching in general, and Reformed Theology in particular, is less wrong than Catholic dogma, so I’ll focus on the former instead of the latter.

Presently, Protestantism can be crudely divided into two camps: Calvinists and Arminians. Calvinists, generally speaking, believe in predestination, which means that, since God is sovereign (i.e. omniscient, omnipotent, etc.), He reserves the right of “election” with respect to salvation. That is to say that one’s eternal destination is predetermined by God, rather than by human “free will”. Arminians, conversely, cling vociferously to the notion that “free will” is ultimately determinative of an individual’s destiny.

Obviously, the vast majority—believers and non-believers alike—hold that free will is true, prima facie. But what is interesting about Arminians is that they don’t dispute God’s sovereignty, nor do they deny that God ostensibly “knows the future”. If so, then God is well aware of the present and future inhabitants of Heaven, in addition to those who will not be there. Therefore, either free will is fact, which means that God is ignorant of the multitude of future free choices, or God indeed has “foreknowledge”, which negates free will, in that its primary constituent: the option to do otherwise is rendered moot by the foregone conclusion that is necessitated by God’s omniscience. It is with this very paradox that, as a teenager, I vexed my Arminian parents and ultimately disassociated myself with their religion after being dissatisfied with their rationalizing.

After years of independent and informal study of theology, I tend to dismiss (rightly or wrongly) those for whom regular church attendance and their pastor’s sermons, rather than critical thinking and introspection, forms the basis of their beliefs and/or faith. I simply failed to understand how otherwise intelligent people could so casually entertain a paradox of that sort. That is, until I read a paper that examines the so-called Moore’s Paradox (beware, it’s really long). Moore’s Paradox distinguishes between paradoxes and contradictions. For example, the proposition: ”It is raining and I do not believe that it is raining.” is paradoxical, whereas the proposition: ”It is raining and it is not raining.” is contradictory.
[…] if p and q are highly complex propositions, a child may be able to understand them separately but unable to wrap her mind around their conjunction, and consequently she will believe that p and that q but not that p&q, since it is impossible to believe a proposition one does not understand. Second, x might come across independent evidence both in support of (p) and in support of (~p), and therefore believe both separately, but only a madman would believe them conjointly, that is, as (p&~p). Propositions (p) and (~p) cannot be both true, of course, and so whatever evidence there is in favor of the falsehood among them, there must be greater counter-evidence against it. But x may be simply unaware of that counter-evidence.

The crucial factors, then, are the facts, assertions and propositions that one has endeavored to apprehend. Such is especially true for historical texts (e.g. the Bible and the Constitution), as I’ve discussed before. With respect to the Bible, it is my contention that most of the leaders and teachers (and by extension, the laymen) in the various Christian sects are simply unfamiliar with the more thorny portions of the text. To be sure, there is a wide consensus concerning the “main and plain” doctrines, such as: Christ’s divinity, man’s need of salvation and so on; but, there is hardly agreement about more nuanced doctrines, such as: the origin of salvation (free will versus determinism), the role of grace (as opposed to “works”) and the nature of faith (i.e. whether it is mere assent or spiritual enlightenment). The prevailing commonality between the disparate sects is, in my view, a misunderstanding of what the Bible actually asserts, due to centuries of piling error upon error. For not unlike the Constitution, the Bible is fixed, and thereby has an objective meaning. In fact, I would argue that both texts are often misrepresented for the same reasons—namely: (a) an attempt to avoid the implications of that which is written and (b) to manipulate unsuspecting individuals for personal gain. In any event, it is incumbent upon everyone to be a critical thinker, as well as being self-critical, while maintaining a healthy skepticism. One ought to know what one believes, but perhaps more importantly, one should know why one believes it.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Belated Appreciation

I may have mentioned this before, but it’s certainly well worth repeating: Eric’s Grumbles Before the Grave is—hands down—one of the best, most well written blogs around. I’m not sure how I missed his recent meme…it’s likely to do with my being burned-out, in addition to the fact that I’ve been rather busy with work lately. Regardless, I was just reminded that I’m one of Eric’s “Blog children. I think that I can honestly claim Libertopia – March, 2005.” That is, without question, the case. Thanks for the inspiration, Eric!

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Regulation: a panacea?

After having been estranged from my very best friends for nearly fifteen years(roughly the duration of my ill-fated marriage)—the ones with whom I suffered ridicule for daring to experiment with ‘Punk Rock’ and…gasp…individualism and nonconformity—I recently got the opportunity to become reacquainted with many of them. Back then (and perhaps now as well), I saw myself as the least bright of those in our clique, so I was naturally curious to know how they’ve matured and/or changed, and whether or not we still have as many things in common, such as: political philosophy, world-view, interests, etc.

As it happens, I was able to spend several hours with them just yesterday, which was a lot of fun. Following the initial catch-up and the introduction of the children, the conversation turned to politics, and to a lesser extent, religion. It was as though (from my perspective anyway) the intervening decade and a half of separation simply disintegrated, as we often debated the very same topics as teenagers.

The conversation moved from exorbitant gasoline prices, to oil producers, to government regulation (among other things). In addition to my ‘libertarian’ perspective, one of the participants in the discussion was a disaffected Republican, whereas another was a self-described liberal. Contra my position, the others seemed to be content with more regulation, rather than less, with respect to the economy in general, and the ‘petroleum markets’ in particular. To the extent that I’m less than satisfied with the points I made, I’ll mention a couple of good arguments on the subject.

Russell Roberts ‘debated’ this issue on television with Jamie Court. Mr. Court said: “Well, as a populist, what I favor is making sure we have enough refinery capacity to meet demand.” How, one might ask, should this be accomplished? According to Court: ”Department of Energy, whoever controls it in the executive branch, can tell oil companies when they need to increase refining capacity to meet demand. They can stop oil companies from exporting refined product away from areas in need if there isn't enough supply to meet demand.”

From an economic liberty standpoint, the idea that DoE ought to dictate to private businesses precisely how much to produce and with whom they may or may not trade is an absurd proposition at best, and immoral at worst. The next thing you know, the various legislatures will decree that certain intimate relationships are valid, whereas others are not…oh, wait. Well, my two cents aside, Russell Roberts’ response to Jamie Court is especially insightful:
The rhetorical distinction we should be pushing is centralized vs. decentralized. Classical liberals favor the decentralization of power and the enhancement of individual freedom. The other side (statists or some other term of your choosing) favors enhancing the power of the government. People on the left romanticize that expansion of power by saying it will serve the people. People on the right romanticize that expansion of power by saying it will serve the people. But has there ever been a powerful government that served the people?


Perhaps the strangest thing of all is that modern day left of center folks think that corporations run America via their influence on the government. If you believe that, why would you want government to be more powerful? If corporations control the political process, why wouldn't you be on my side, reducing the power of government?

Why indeed! In response to Roberts’ piece, Will Wilkinson (who’s post, incidentally, examines the irrational demonization of Wal-Mart, which also came up between my friends and me) wrote the following:
This point, however, seems never to penetrate, and journalists persist in the fantasy that if only the right people had state power, then they could put the world aright. All the while, the people who have a lot to gain personally from political power continue to seek it and get it under the cover of the myth of the noble public servant.

Perhaps I’ll respond—another time—at length to the misguided notion that collectivism could really work, if in fact the right set of politicians, supreme leaders or clergy held the reigns of power.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Layman vs. Philosopher

The following bit of foolishness was brought to my attention by the HWIC: A Non-Philosopher’s Guide to Philosophical Terms

Layman’s definition: almost precisely cubical and made of concrete, probably a multi-storey car park

Philosopher’s definition: one who believes that the morally right action is the one with the best consequences, so far as the distribution of happiness is concerned; a creature generally believed to be endowed with the propensity to ignore their own drowning children in order to push buttons which will cause mild sexual gratification in a warehouse full of rabbits

Layman’s definition: thatte whyche prevents rogues and arrant knaves from burgling Ye Olde English Tea Shoppe

Philosopher’s definition: a dead philosopher of politics, language and mind

Layman’s definition: Helen of Troy, Beethoven, Corinthian architecture and similar things

Philosopher’s definition: a stodgy, old-fashioned logic which produces wildly implausible results: for example, according to classical logic, no proposition is both true and false

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Chain Letter

My cousin sent the following to me via e-mail:
A new priest at his first mass was so nervous he could hardly speak. After mass he asked the monsignor how he had done. The monsignor replied, “When I am worried about getting nervous on the pulpit, I put a glass of vodka next to the water glass. If I start to get nervous, I take a sip.” So next Sunday he took the monsignor’s advice. At the beginning of the sermon, he got nervous and took a drink. He proceeded to talk up a storm. Upon his return to his office after the mass, he found the following note on the door:

1) Sip the vodka, don’t gulp.
2) There are 10 commandments, not 12.
3) There are 12 disciples, not 10.
4) Jesus was consecrated, not constipated.
5) Jacob wagered his donkey, he did not bet his ass.
6) We do not refer to Jesus Christ as the late J.C.
7) The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are not referred to as Daddy, Junior and the spook.
8) David slew Goliath; he did not kick the shit out of him.
9) When David was hit by a rock and was knocked off his donkey, don’t say he was stoned off his ass.
10)We do not refer to the cross as the “Big T.”
11)When Jesus broke the bread at the last supper he said, “Take this and eat it for it is my body.” He did not say “Eat me”.
12)The Virgin Mary is not called “Mary with the Cherry”.
13)The recommended grace before a meal is not: Rub-A-Dub-Dub thanks for the grub, Yeah God.
14)Next Sunday there will be a taffy pulling contest at St. Peter’s not a peter pulling contest at St. Taffy’s.

The Origination of this letter is unknown...blah, blah, blah.

I'm sure that I'll post something substantive eventually, if and/or when my case of 'burn-out' subsides.