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God

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I’ve had a lot to do the last few days,  so any progress I’ve made on anything has been slow, but the progress through Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell has not been bad.

The experience has even improved in some ways.  Once Dennett gets going, he tends to forget to use the exclamation points (!!!) and to forget to use the egregious term “bright,” both cases of situational amnesia being all to the good.

Of course, every once in a while he seems to remember that he’s supposed to be employing these devices, and I’m stuck with how brights find all this completely bewildering!

Or some such sentence that makes me want to hurl the book i nto the fireplace.

Don’t worry.  There’s nothing lit in the fireplace.  I don’t want to burn the thing.  I just want to make the man take me seriously.

The book is interesting in a lot of ways, in spite of this kind of thing, and I’ve just finished making my why through a long section about what people actually mean when they say the word “God.”

The exposition is on the light side, and I’d really like to see a serious book about the evolution of the definition of “God” through the ages. 

I’ve seen people in my own life evolve such a definition for themselves, and in both directions.  One of my best friends from high school went from being an intensely devout Catholic to being a fervent evangelical. Her God went from being a highly intellectualized metaconception to be something much  more anthropomorphic and concrete.

Other people I know, while maintaining themselves as Catholics or Methodists or whatever, have made their God so abstract and conceptual, they might as well be Buddhists.

I, of course, have done none of these things, because I never had a conception of God to begin with.

In a country in which most people have been brought up in a religion, this can be very hard to explain to people. 

When I first went looking for fellow atheists–after Bill’s death, when I felt absolutely deluged by Catholics trying to save my soul and eliminate what they were sure was my “despair”–

When I first went looking for fellow atheists, what I almost always found were ex-Christians desperate for confirmation of the rightness of their decision to leave their religion.

I thought then, and I think now, that most of them were not anywhere near as sure as they wanted to be.  That would explain the hysteria, the hyperbole, and the utterly irrational rage if anybody suggested anything that might make a case for atheism seem less than  ironclad.

Mind you, I said seem less than ironclad.  A lot of the things that caused the most upset–maintaining that Jesus was a person who had actually existed in history, say–would not have destroyed the case for atheism at all.

But I never had to break away from a belief and declare myself an atheist, so I feel no guilt about it.

And I have no experience of believing in a particular version of God, either, so I have no need to “evolve” a definition for myself.

Religion was of great interest to me when I was growing up, but it was of interest in the same way that life in Paris and New York, or the history of WWII, were of interest to me.  They were all mostly intellectual exercises.

Religion seemed to me to be sort of fun of a kind I wished I could  have–First Holy Communion with special white dresses and veils with tiaras on them; women speaking directly to apparitions of a Beautiful Lady; rosaries, which were so beautiful in some cases I wanted to have them just to have, and did.  I collected rosaries for almost thirty  years.

God himself, however, was for me just a blank.  When I tried to conceive of him–even when I was very young, and knew only the Christian traditions–he always came up a sort of faceless blank.  Or just a blank.

Faith seemed to me to be an emotional response of some kind of which I was just not capable. 

In the years before Vatican II we would sometimes go to sung masses that were extraordinarily beautiful–but that was all they ever were to me, extraordinarily beautiful.  If I tried to force myself to feel something bigger and more important beyond it all, I got–absolutely nothing.

Over the years, I attended many different kinds of religious services in many different Christian denominations. 

A woman who came in to babysit us when my family was in Florida–half the year, every year, until I was a high school senior–took my brother and myself to African-American tent revival services.  They were literally held in tents,  out in an open marchy flat space that was well out of town and seemed to belong to nobody.

It took only the second trip before I was being slain in the spirit with the best of them, but it was only a performance, and I was incapable of “losing” myself long enough ever to forget it.

At the same time, I never became one of those people who pretends to have faith, on the assumption that faith is something to be encouraged, because it’s good for people who are too weak or undisciplined to run their lives without it.

It wasn’t just that I didn’t like the condescension, although I didn’t, even then.  It was that I lived in a world of nonbelievers, many of whom (especially  my father) seemed to me to be more moral, ethical and upright than most of the religious people I knew.

It was, therefore, obviously true that it was possible to be “good without God,” as the posters say, and equally possible to be bad with him.

In the end, I think I decided two things.

The first was that a strictly metaphysical description of God–neither male nor female; having no body; not answering prayers but just being the essence of being in the universe–while it could never be disproven, also wasn’t much use for anything. 

I didn’t need Daniel Dennett to tell me that such a religious idea rarely garners much in the way of believers, because it was obvious that there wasn’t much point in believing it, even if it was true.

There would be a point in believing in the God of the Christians, or the Jews, or the Muslims, or even the Hindus, if I could convince myself that they were true, but I never could convince myself. 

The whole idea always seemed to me to be pointless and unnecessary.

But in the end, it was more than that.

I can remember the exact moment at which I realized that I would never believe in the Christian story, that I was incapable of believing it, because it was embedded in the vision of a world I not only did not live in, but did not want to live in.

I was watching a cable network called EWTN–Eternal Word Television Network–run by the legendary Mother Angelica and her Poor Clare cloistered, full-habited nuns. The network’s stated mission is to present orthodox Catholic Christianity to the world.

What was on was a movie about the life of Christ, dubbed into English from Spanish. 

I’d watched a number of these movies on EWTN, mostly biopics of specific religious figures.  The movies were amateurish on a technial level, but they were sometimes very interesting.  That was especially the case of the biopic of  St. Teresa of Avila, still my favorite Catholic saint.

But I was sitting there watching this movie, and there came a point where Jesus is leading his disciples over a stony patch of ground while talking to them about the mustard seed, and I suddenly saw the scene as if it were taking place directly in front of me.

It wasn’t an iconic scene about Jesus anymore.  It was just a place and a time and a way of being in the world–sandals instead of shoes, loose robes instead of tailored clothing, the threat of death from unconquerable disease at any moment, no central heating, no proper plumbing, no secure sources of food…

And it just suddenly hit me that the gulf between that way of life and mine was just too vast–it was in many ways a difference in kind and  not just in degree.

The Christian story did not move me to belief because it couldn’t.

I could take good things from it–and there are a lot of good things in Christianity, things we could not do without–but I could only take them as I took good things from Homer.

We  have certainly managed to come up with some very bad things in our pursuit of modernity, including ways of life far worse than that represented by first century Palestine.

But modernity is like anything else in one important way–the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward.

The risk is Stalinism and Nurse Ratched, and that is a very big risk indeed.

The reward is the virtual elimination of death in childbirth and from things like cholera, smallpox and TB.  It’s landing on the moon universal literacy and books and movies and the Internet everywhere and for everyone.  It’s a life of reasonable comfort and spare time spread across entire populations.  It’s–

Well.

Here’s the thing.  We have made so much real progress, we have come so far, that  most of the things we argue about would be literally  nonsensical to Christ’s disciples.

And I don’t mean things like gay marriage or women’s rights, either.

We argue about whether or not our fellow citizens have “decent lives” with “decent” defined by a standard the Roman Emperors couldn’t have met on their best days.  Our problem is not what to do about diseases that strike without warning and kill without mercy, but  how to make sure our fellow citizens don’t go bankrupt getting well.

We not only do not think the way the people of Palestine thought, we can’t think the way they thought, and if we’ve got any luck and any brains, we’ll never think that way again.

In spite of the very real downsides, in spite of the colossal risks (Stalin, Pol Pot, Katherine Sebelius), this way of life is better than that way was.  We did make progress.  We made quite a lot of it.

The Christian narrative sounds like mythology to me because it lives in the world where mythology lived, and I don’t live there and never have.

And I don’t want to. 

And I shouldn’t want to.

What’s more, I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one who responds to the Christian narrative this way.

Unlike some people, I don’t imagine that it is impossible for the Christian narrative to accept reality–yes, the world is billions of years old and evolution is a fact and every decently educated Catholic accepts it.

But the fact that Christianity does not need to be stupid in order to be Christianity does not solve the central problem.

Intelligent or otherwise, it envisions a world that is lost, and should be lost, forever.

Intelligent Christianity is very intelligent indeed, and there is a lot that can and should and even must be kept from the ideas that evolved out of that story–things about how we should envision ourselves and our fellow human beings, about the obligations we owe each other as people, about individuality and the nature of guilt and innocence and a lot else.

But the narrative does not ring true to me because it is a narrative of another time, a time that is not only gone but should be gone, because that time was not only different from ours, but lesser.

Written by janeh

July 11th, 2013 at 9:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'God'

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  1. That’s a very interesting view of “why I am not a Christian”, and I don’t really think I can come up with much to explain why I am in response.

    It doesn’t really bother me that the ancient residents of Palestine didn’t think like I do, or, for that matter, that millions of other Christians over the millenia thought and had their entire personalities formed by cultures very different from my own – or that many do so today. And I’m not the kind of person who gets swept away by emotion easily, or often has a sudden conviction of the presence of God, even in response to beauty – although I love much religious music and do respond with some emotion to some of it, and some services. And I’m not entirely sure where I am with my concept of God – sometimes I drift near the conceptual view, sometimes more anthropomorphic, but mostly I’m content to believe that God is beyond my comprehension and anything I come up with is sure to be incomplete.

    I came back to practicing religion as an adult after having drifted away for a couple of decades mainly because my life was going pretty well after some difficult times, but something still seemed to be missing.

    I know the Christian narrative, I learn what I can about Christianity and the nature of God and all that, I try to live a decent life (but of course, I’d do that anyway) … what it comes down to for me, I think, is nothing you’ve mentioned. It’s just that without it, I am not complete, rven though I lived many years without religion and without feeling particularly incomplete.

    Cheryl

    11 Jul 13 at 10:15 am

  2. I think “things are better around here lately” is an insufficient answer to Christianity.

    Incidentally, I don’t think people who lived under Herod and Tiberius, and who read the Pentateuch and Esther regularly would have been as shocked by Hitler and Stalin as some of their more modern and non-believing descendants. There are good times and bad times, but anyone who thinks the good times are forever needs to read more history.

    For myself, I still live in a world in which family members sicken and die–sometimes for reasons we don’t understand very well; a world in which lunatic rulers conduct massacres; some live in luxury and some are very poor, a world in which buildings collapse take the occupants with them, a world in which I may be required to “volunteer” and judges may or may not grant justice. and, ultimately, a world in which even the rich will someday and perhaps unexpectedly have their souls required of them. Not a word of the general confession is irrelevant today.

    I’m as happy as anyone that we’ve cured a number of diseases, and that I personally have a DVD player and a computer, but as for thinking the world is different–well, they had people like that in Jesus’ time, too, busily building barns.

    robert_piepenbrink

    11 Jul 13 at 4:03 pm

  3. I grew up in a “Christian” family, and I always considered myself a Christian. However, a couple of years ago I felt convicted that I was not living a Christian life, and I began to doubt my salvation and faith. After many months of struggling as to whether I was saved, I prayed that Jesus would come in my life and that Jesus would be my Savior. I didn’t feel any different at the time, but the next day and since that day, I felt that the weight of the doubt was lifted off of me, and I have desired to know God, and spend time with Him, and read His word.

    Today’s times may be better now that 2000 years ago, but people are still struggling physically and mentally throughout the world with illness, hunger, war and the meaning to life, and I think God is as relevant today as ever before. I would not be surprised if things get worse, if the world population outgrows resources and wars continue. All that I can rest on is my faith that no matter how bad things get, I can trust in Jesus.

    Jane, I do want to thank you for your blog, and even though I am not a regular poster, I enjoy the discussions. I was disappointed when you took your hiatus. Also, your Jonathan Edwards website has served as a landmark on my journey to know God.

    Eric_Jax

    13 Jul 13 at 8:29 am

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