Does God Really Love Me? Part 3

pexels-photo-208216.jpegIn part one of this series, I rambled, but in part 2, I started to make more sense. Let’s see if I can keep it up.

I’m trying to move towards the thought that started me writing in the first place. For that I must discuss what it means to live in sin.

In traditional Christianity, all men and women – including even newborn infants – live in sin. It’s a strange thought, that there is something fundamentally wrong with people. “There is no one righteous, not even one,” says Paul.  While this is a very pessimistic attitude, we should ask where it came from.

An alien descending from outer space would consider the existence of human beings on earth to be neither a good nor a bad thing. But as humans, our consciousnesses is stuck inside and always attached to our bodies, so it is quite difficult to pass judgment on the overall goodness of the fact that we exist. It’s like asking a fish whether water is good. IT doesn’t even know it is in water. Likewise, our consciousness always is accompanied by a human body, therefore we can’t really say what life is like without one.

But the Christian notion is that people are essentially all sinners – all but one, anyway. We are inherently evil, cursed from the beginning. The biblical story starts out in Paradise, but through something called Original Sin we were expelled into the shitty world. Again, here we have the sado-masochistic theme of gratuitous punishment – we all deserve to be spanked for what we did, don’t we, Lord? Yes we do. Don’t we? Spank us, Lord. “I only beat you because I love you,” says the abusive stepfather. How else would we know that He cared?

One might not think such an abusive story would catch on? But then, why would so many people over the course of so many years believe it?

I’m sure one could get a thousand people to each give their own answer to that question. But I want to focus on the Fall of Man’s specific meaning for me. The driving point of this essay is the question, “What would it take to convince me God loves me?” And I have to start out by saying that I don’t feel particularly loved, and that I think God could do a lot more. That said, my condition does reflect the fallen state of mankind as traditionally described. That part of the story I can relate to.

From a neutral perspective – like suppose a bunch of aliens came down to do scientific research on us – human existence is not good or evil. It just is. But from my personal perspective, existence feels fallen. We might attribute this to a habit I have, which all people have, by the way, of passing value judgments on things. Some things are good and others bad.

Now let me call your attention to the name of the tree in the Garden of Eden from which Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat. It is called the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. To say “knowledge” implies the objective existence of something. To have knowledge of a baseball game implies the external, factual existence of that game. My point is that we might replace that term “knowledge” with something a little more subjective. Suppose the fruit from the tree does not grant knowledge of good and evil, but rather it bestows the habit of seeing things in terms of good and evil. Now I see the actual world, overlaid with value judgments. If this causes me to judge the world as less-than-desirable, it fits the story of “the Fall” perfectly. Before I can make value judgments, it is impossible to see things good or evil. But afterward, it is possible for the world to be “fallen” – regardless of whether the good and evil are “out there.” Perhaps the Knowledge of Good and Evil is more like a revelation of the world as it really is. This certainly corresponds to human psychological development much more than Genesis corresponds to anything resembling physical evidence.

It’s as if the world was already bad, but the knowledge of good and evil allows Adam and Eve to see that it is bad.

Anyway, I’m willing to agree with the basic Christian principle that when you’re stuck in a human body, and you have the “knowledge” of good and evil, i.e. you make value judgments about the world, then it’s easy to see yourself and everyone else as being in a sad state of affairs.

The Christian answer to this sad state of affairs is that God sent his only begotten Son, so that all who may believe, will have eternal life.

The question, though, is: Is that enough?

I mean, is it enough for the Lord to send only ONE person – ONCE?

Christianity says it is. I say it isn’t.

The historical Jesus is shrouded in mystery. The first books of the New Testament to be written, according to scholars, are the letters of St. Paul, and, as Carl Jung pointed out, those letters convey almost no information about the human Jesus. By the time any gospel was written down, the life of Jesus had turned into the legend of Jesus Christ.

Why is God capable of begetting only a single son? He could and should have begotten more children, if you ask me. We could go to the other extreme and say something like, we are all children of God. But then Jesus becomes no more significant than your beloved “neighbor.” The world is no longer fallen, and no longer needs saving.

But I need saving.

Living in sin means something different to me personally than for traditional Christians. I don’t focus on all the so-called sins that I’ve committed and for which the world apparently suffers endlessly – because I can’t see any of those. I’m not really that bad a person, and overall I make the world a better place.

So how can I make sense of the idea of living in sin without assuming that I’m a horrible person whose very existence makes the world of other people a living hell?

I have a much simpler and more mundane notion of what it means to live in sin. You won’t get any dramatic “hellfire” speeches from my point of view.

Have you ever felt ashamed of yourself? One might think that being ashamed of oneself is the result of a specific instance of behavior. In normal Christianity, all people are sinners. The Catholic Church in particular has elaborate rituals by which to “confess your sins.” The possibility that one hasn’t sinned isn’t even a consideration, and this attitude goes too far. You need sins to confess, and if you don’t have any, you’re encouraged to make some up. You must feel like a sinner, otherwise the whole edifice makes no sense. But I’m sure lots of people don’t feel like sinners. At minimum, it seems unhealthy to insist that people focus on their own intentional acts of evil. But to this point bear in mind that religious rituals throughout history have addressed such concerns.

The human mind seems to have an innate habit of believing that its actions are the cause of great injustice in the world. To make sacrifice to a god – a burnt offering of an animal or something else – is not too different from confessing one’s sins to a priest. The object is to remove the stain of sin from the individual – or group, as the case may be.

But this is what that has to do with me. I often I in my life feel a sense of anxiety about whether I’m being the best person I can be. Somewhere in my mind, I have an image of a good or perfect person, and I often doubt if I can compare to that image. Unlike the Catholic presumption of self-knowledge, I couldn’t tell you exactly what my “sins” are. Instead, I look at my actions and think, “Could I have done better? Is this the best I can do? What would a good person do?” In the absence of a clear answer, this seed of anxiety can cast a large shadow over my self-image.  For me, living in sin means living in doubt as to whether my actions are those of a “good person.”

That’ll do it for part 3. In part 4 I’ll finally say what I’m getting at.

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Does God Really Love Me? Part 2

GodLove

I ramble, I know.

I started Part 1 of this series with only one thought I really wanted to communicate. But my brain kept getting filled up with other things I wanted to say. So you’ll have to bear with me while I, um,  uh… learn to write. Because if I don’t post these thoughts as they are, they will just stagnate and clog my brain.

So back to the question of whether God loves me – or you, or anyone for that matter. The way I understand the story of Christianity, God incarnated himself as a human being and thereby made it possible for us to be redeemed from our sad, flesh-bound existence. We could focus on a single human life, or on the fate of human life in general. Even if your own life makes you happy, doesn’t it feel bad that for all practical purposes, we’re stuck on this earth and that eventually the last human will die? It makes ME feel bad. And so I look for answers to the question of eternal life. Christianity is the most prominent provider of said answers. I’ve been told many times – mostly by Protestants evangelicals – that God loves me. But how would I know? This series investigates that question. 

One thing that makes me sad is my lack of sufficient power over things. Why can’t I remake the world as I see fit? Why can’t I rearrange physical matter with a mere thought? I can do this to a certain extent. After all, I am sitting here, and these words appear on the screen as I type them. So I obviously have some power. But look at Genesis Chapter 1: “God created the heavens and the earth… God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.” Now that is power. If I want to know what real power is, then there I have it. And if God loved me, he would give me some of it, right? So either he doesn’t love me… or he just doesn’t love me in that way. He must love me in some other way, some way much less obvious than to just give me the power to rearrange creation as I see fit. God’s love has now become a disappointing conditional sort of love. It’s like if someone says, “Of course I love you, just not as much as this other thing. You’re like number three million on my list of things. But hey, still, how about some sex?!???” No, God. No sex – I’m gonna need a little more wooing than that!

I wish I could move mountains – or entire planets! – instead of just making a few words appear on a computer screen.

If God is going to become a person, in order to accomplish a specific goal, why not have that goal be to allow me to change the physical world as I see fit? If God is going to become human, why not allow people to become God? In the story of the Crucifixion, God becomes fully human through his painful death on the Cross. Prior to this, we can only assume that God was free from physical pain and human limitation.

A more productive interpretation of the life of Christ is that God opened up an avenue of communication on how God and human beings can relate to each other. Before, God was pain-free and could do anything at any time for any reason – a state of omnipotence. But he “so loved the world” that he became human for the span of one lifetime. The only way it makes sense is if human beings are getting precisely what God is giving up. God gets pain and death, and humans are freed from pain and death, at least a little bit.

We can start to ask, what is so good about pain and death that God would “so love the world” as to want to experience it? I don’t find the traditional explanation satisfying, which compares God’s love to human love for their children. Yes, people love their children and would die for them. But that doesn’t mean that becoming their children will help them. Maybe it would be better if God retained his great status, and just bestowed fatherly gifts upon us from time to time. How does becoming such a powerless child constitute “loving the world?” How could a zookeeper benefit his animals by locking himself in a cage for a year?

The actual story is more of an erotic masochistic fantasy, where God ties himself up and plays the victim just to feel the pain. His motives seem less-than-pure.

In exchange for God’s BDSM role-play, whoever “believes” now receives eternal life. I can see the logic here, although it’s tricky. In order to become a human being, God had to undress a little, if you will, and leave some of his “God clothes” at the gate. While he was distracted and enjoying the pain of being Christ, some of his powers became available for humans to “wear.” God role-plays man, and humans can role-play God while He’s distracted. They are each revealing some of their secrets to the other.

Jesus was a way for God and human beings to begin to relate to each other.

But does God love me? That seems like another question entirely.

How do I begin answering that question? Instead of Dirty Harry’s, “‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?” I think a good place to start is by asking:

“Do I feel loved?”

Well, do I?

Consider what is normally said about God, that he is almighty and all knowing and all benevolent. Such a God would never have allowed me to feel a moment’s pain, unless the pain was quickly utilized to bring an even greater joy. Yet my life is full of moments of pain, with no obvious joyful counterbalance. So it is clear that he doesn’t love me. The answer is No. People with less robust self-confidence will lament God’s “unsearchable” character. “Who can know the will of God?” they will say. But I say unto you: “If God is so unsearchable, then your beliefs about God are not based on observation. So why do you believe anything good about Him, if he is so mysterious as to be unsearchable? Why are only the good things searchable? It’s is because you are all weak-minded fools, I say unto you! Or social cowards unwilling to abandon the safety-in-numbers of the evil herds you belong to! Rose-colored glasses-wearing fools!”

So lets’ throw out the all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful idea of God, and try to examine a little more closely the nature of God’s becoming Christ on the cross. God’s strange masochistic tendency, as illustrated above, allows a little more flexibility in one’s interpretation of His nature. If God’s incarnation as a human serves to donate a part of his transcendent powers to us – perhaps the part he leaves behind during his transformation – then while I may live in sin and ignorance, with enough effort on God’s part to join me in my pain, maybe I could make up the loss. It’s the “misery loves company” method of salvation: God is going to be the submissive in our little role play, which makes me the dominant. It’s only a matter of asking, How much pain and sacrifice would God have to make on my account in order to please me, i.e. to make me feel “loved.”

Stay tuned for Part 3.

Does God Really Love Me? Part 1

by Zach Tollen

You’ve heard it before. Christians spreading the Gospel of Christ will readily inform you, “God loves you.” And a little investigation reveals that they really mean it. God doesn’t just love humanity abstractly — he loves you, specifically, individually.

Which is great because I definitely need loving.

One thing everyone in my audience has in common is that we wake up wrapped in flesh, confined by what we later learn are the rules of all physical matter. While we also call them the “Laws of Physics,” knowledge of the existence of these rules, or something like them, is very ancient. In the Bible, Genesis 3:19 reads: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return unto the ground, for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

In modern physics, the second law of thermodynamics dictates that energy systems dissipate. (Of course, at some point they had to build up, or there could never have been any differentiation in the first place. So the 2nd law must be understood to only apply at smaller scales – something which physicists don’t mention that often, but I digress…) The relevant point is that all local matter in our solar system, for example, is in a permanent state of increasing entropy, that is, on the whole it becomes less cohesive over time. On the human level, we can acknowledge this by the fact that we generate more garbage than we can recycle, and our use of resources almost always depletes, rather than increases the supply of resources available. Again, this is not even a modern phenomenon. Even before we started planting our own food, mankind had been transforming his environment in ways that couldn’t be reversed.

“For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” It didn’t take modern physics to discover this.

And it calls into question whether God really loves us. One of our basic desires is for immortality in some form. I can prove this by the fact that the 2nd law of thermodynamics feels bad. There is something very sad about it, and when first discovered in the 1800’s it naturally faced enormous resistance. Wouldn’t it be great if science could have saved us from what religion resigned itself to a long time ago: that the material world was, in the end, simply a place of dust, rather than of life? Instead, science went the other way, and confirmed religion’s darkest suspicion. The forces of non-entropic creation, insofar as we understand them at all, operate at such a massive and impersonal scale that in the end, they have nothing to do with us. We are stuck with entropy – which means a slowly dying sun and impossible distances to anything that might otherwise sustain flesh-based life.

We can only assume God could have come up with something better.  But He obviously didn’t. And in explaining why He didn’t, divisions in people’s opinions are inevitable. The most readily rational explanations spur, at the same time, the most violently intolerable emotions: that God is either Stupid, or at minimum, not that smart; or that he’s evil, or at minimum, at least not that Good; or that he’s powerless – or at least in competition with some other comparably powerful, and much less Good, entity.

So does God love us? I don’t see much evidence for it.

The Christian claim goes much further, though, in singling out individual people for His love.

Let’s review the basics. The Gospel of John 3:16 reads: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

In other words, God is trying to cure us from the material limitations I’m complaining about. “Everlasting life” is essentially a defiance of the 2nd law of thermodynamics. The mechanism: God sends his only begotten Son, and requires nothing more than “belief” — whatever that means. (To His credit, God ignores the social status of the individual, giving an ego boost to anyone whose social status is low. You can be a nobody in the human society and still be saved by the Christian God.)

But the story seems inadequate. God sends one man, once — to a desert in the Middle East. The Middle East is not exactly my neck o’ the woods.  He sent his only begotten Son to a desert in the Middle East to preach for a short while, only have Him stir up so much trouble that the authorities decided to nail him to a cross and send him back to where he came from. How does this constitute a viable mechanism for providing eternal life? It’s hard to say. (Note: I’m not even addressing the question of whether “eternal life” would actually be pleasant or not. But the fact that life is so fragile and apparently meaningless is most certainly not pleasant. So I think we’re in need of some help regardless.)

Roman Catholic theology equates the Son with the Father – I prefer this theology, because it resolves the most pressing logical questions that arise if Jesus and God are not exactly the same thing. They are both considered God. Jesus is merely God in human form – not just the “son” of God. How God could have a blood-related family like we humans do, let alone why that family should be restricted to a single male child is a different question. Anyway, God Himself became a human, and this is called the Incarnation, which made it possible for any human to live forever. But how? Perhaps it has something to do with God’s newfound ability to empathize with people. But I think a reasonable person could dismiss the whole notion by saying: “That’s really stupid!” It seems like a profound desire for wish-fulfillment: We believe something is true because we want it to be true, but that doesn’t make it true. Nonetheless, not every wish-fulfillment fantasy catches on like Christianity did (to say the least!). So it’s likely there is more to it than that.

I want to address Pascal’s wager. Access to eternal life is limited to those who believe, of course, thus raising the stakes enormously in a very lopsided way in their favor. Since all of the benefits accrue to the believers, some people will be tempted to “believe” out of sheer rational self-interest. This has become know as Pascal’s wager. My response to this is: That’s betting, not believing. I do not believe that belief is an entirely conscious action. I cannot exactly decide what I believe, especially not my beliefs are explicitly calculated to benefit me personally. Admittedly, all people have an unconscious tendency to believe what benefits them – but it seems manifestly immoral to do this consciously, which means that in order to be saved in this way, God must actively approve of being unethical. I think the kind of “belief” that the Gospel of John is talking about is more subtle than that, and involves both conscious choice and unconscious belief. It’s not the cynical betting of an entirely conscious rationality.

But why God requires belief in the first place is a challenging question. Historically this question has driven many Christian thinkers to a theory called Universalism, in which there is no hell, and everyone is saved. This is basically to say that everyone believes – whether they know it or not. The thorny question of the role of free will in deciding whether one goes to heaven, or burns for eternity in hell, is thereby sidestepped.

But I’m going to solve the free will question another way. In Part 2. Before I get to the real meat of my argument. Stay tuned.