Deceptive Knots of Certainty

Theology_KnotAs a Christian, I wandered through a few theological camps: the Dallas Theological Fundamentalist camp, the Jesus Freak Charismatic camps, the Mennonite camps and a few others. Each camp, each sect had its own amazing theories — each contradicting the others. Each flavor of Christianity had its amazing authors and charismatic teachers. And when I’d talk with an enthusiast from each camp and hear the certainty of their carefully tied together web of theology and belief, I craved for a bit of that certainty. But the patterns stood out too quickly and I would leave.

After leaving the Christian world behind, I traveled for more than a decade through Pakistan, India, Japan and China where I intimately encountered  Islam, Hinduism, Shintoism and Buddhism — each full of highly different sects too.  I also discussed and debated religion with these folks much like I had Christians before.  They had the same excited eyes, the same certain witness, the same miracles and changed lives. But now those theological knots were done with different texts, different histories, different saints.  I could have drawn a Hindu theology knot, a Buddhist knot, a Jewish knot, a Muslim knot ….

With all these conversations and observations, I came to see that all these theology knot-makers were just people doing very similar things. I began to see the same silly, yet serious efforts to gain certainty, direction, a banner, an identity, hope and much more.  Yet under or inside the knot was a simpler person who the knots obscured.

Some folks settle into one of these complex knotted nests, but I just saw the weaving at its deepest level (the mind) and began to feel just fine without the theological clothing, without the saints, without the texts, without the certainty. And all of a sudden, I shared much more with everyone than I did before.

Now when people witness to me about their wonderful beliefs and their certainty, I see a knot maker who is fascinated in the complexity of their own little contrived world. I am happy for them in a way, except that for most, they use their knots to keep others out. Those are weavers whose only goal is to get you into their exclusive tangled mess.

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50 responses to “Deceptive Knots of Certainty

  1. Now when people witness to me about their wonderful beliefs and their certainty, I see a knot maker who is fascinated in the complexity of their own little contrived world.

    That part is fine, as long as you understand that it is a contrived world.

    I obviously can’t object, since I do the same thing myself. My contrived world is mathematics. And, strictly speaking, I have a second contrived world, namely that of computer software design (which is a kind of contriving).

    If we get some of our enjoyment out of contrived worlds, we might at least do it usefully.

  2. Sabio, I appreciate this post.

    I saw all those knots and tangles as bondage. I lived in that big ball of yarn and thread for so long I stayed confused. Now I have clarity in a way I never had before and I’m enjoying it!

    Thanks for this.

  3. Aren’t you in yet another “camp,” Sabio? The “unbelieving, skeptical atheist camp?”

    The only thing is, is that you don’t seem so certain about it, or happy about it either. You refer to our various camps as “exclusive tangled messes,” but I don’t sense a lot that isn’t tangled in your own. Perhaps everyone’s appears tangled to someone else, eh? Maybe yours is as certain to you as ours is but you’re really not all that certain at all. None of us can prove yay or nay so I can see how this could be, actually. You can’t prove a negative and we can’t prove what we believe.

    We each believe in our own version of what is and isn’t. We think we’re probably right in what we believe, don’t we? I hope we can all just be happy because we’ve made our various choices. Mine makes me happy and I hope yours does the same for you.

  4. I’m a convinced Christian, and I am happy to identify myself as an agnostic Christian. (It was nice to meet you on Richard Beck’s blog :) I totally agree with your skepticism of this kind of certainty. In the context of Christianity, I would say that this sort of certainty is often conflated with ‘faith.’ However, I think that faith is nearly the opposite of this sort of certainty…faith implies a commitment made under conditions of recognized uncertainty. We don’t know how our kids will grow up, but we are faithful to them when we feed them, clothe them and care for them. It would be absurd and troubling if a parent felt that their care for their child rested on their ‘certainty’ in some complex system of beliefs that they felt proved that their child would grow up to be a doctor. A lot of theology ends up just like that, though … and when it is pointed out, I think plenty of people who are trapped in knots of illusory certainty will question it.

    I think you are right that plenty of Christians conflate the two; I consider this conflation a theological and exegetical error. I would point out that although you experienced three types of Christianity, all three are part of a rather narrow band of American sects with a rather closely-shared history. Instead of faith in the historical sense of the word (and I think these historical questions matter for a lot of reasons, even if you are skeptical of the goals of exegesis), too many contemporary Christians functionally take faith to mean ‘pretending to believe what you know ain’t so.’ I think this conflation is primarily a result of the European Enlightenment, the period when a lot of our contemporary translations were introduced and the word “believe” came to have primarily intellectual connotations (coming to mean “think”), drifting further from the Germanic root word “belieb” (to love), which happens to do a somewhat better job of conveying the force of Hebrew words like “emunah.” So I view the emergence of this sort of false intellectual certainty in Christianity is part of a historical process, centered on the European Enlightenment, which included a rather profound break from traditional Christian beliefs. Your sample of Christian experience largely involved sects that were heavily influenced by this historical process.

    Regardless of what you think of that historical reconstruction, I’m happy to agree with you that this kind of false certainty, and that these kinds of systemic mental knots, are silly and bad. And while my defense of an alternative core meaning of ‘faith’ may not mean much to you, as a matter of demonstrating orthodoxy, I think it should at least matter to you in your efforts to understand and properly characterize Christianity in both its historic and contemporary forms. I read your post as endorsing agnosticism, to which I say: Amen! I don’t think agnosticism is an alternative to atheism, Christianity, or any meta-ethical/metaphysical conviction. Instead, I think it is a precondition to Christianity, and to any reasonable metaethical/metaphysical conviction.

  5. * aside from the other typos, I should have said presuppostion of Christianity, not precondition. The distinction matters, because a presupposition doesn’t go away. I would say that any traditional Christian, given an understanding of how I am using these words, should agree that agnosticism is a presupposition of faith.

  6. @ Dan Heck:

    First, welcome.
    Second, I am glad that we seem to agree on the criticism of certain mental states that express themselves in many flavors of Christianity (and to keep it from being personal), I also see in other beliefs — hell, even among some atheists. But I won’t pretend that we really agree because this may be a more superficial agreement than meets the eye — only time tells that. For we’d have to explore objects of certainty as related to value. This gets at the core of your concluding comment that you endorse agnosticism. I don’t endorse agnosticism about some things, for instance. But trying to build a case (in a lawyer type of way) around the term “agnostic” is not a road I will go down, it is not something I said, but something that may be convenient for you in trying to move the conversation in a convenient way. But one quick question about your “Agnostic Christian” labeling and then I will move on to another issue. I number them for ease of commenting.

    (1) “Agnostic Christian
    Do feel that with even a little conversation you could convince most Evangelical Christians that they are “agnostic Christians” too? Is it simply a convenient word to minimize the word “agnostic”? For example, certainly Christians are atheists concerning the gods of other folks, so they could be “Atheist Christians” too.
    Or do you mean the phrase in a way that meaningfully distinguishes one group of Christians out of the others? As you state, you feel many Christians are confused by European Enlightenment, but do you feel it is an easy one to fix with just a slight intellectual/spiritual theological chiropracty? :-) In other words, is in non-essential to their classification as Christians? Oooops, I am jumping the gun — to be continued in #3.

    (2) “You choose from a limited, mistaken sample”
    I knew I should have listed more of my exposures to Christianity. I was a religious studies major and have a broader exposure to the many flavors of Christianity then I explained. I will do another post on that. But trust me, I reject a huge number of widely varied flavors of Christianity (and Islam, and Hinduism and Buddhism — I have been to the smorgasbord, unlike many other atheists). But Christians use that move often to try to minimize my judgement not infrequently, but I think the move is a bad for this reason, but more importantly for reason number 2 that follows, depending on how they answer it.

    As I just said, it is inaccurate — but explaining that is my burden which I may do later.

    But for a little foretaste, my Charismatic Jesus Freak days was all about emotional, deep passionate, exuberant “love” (‘belieb’) — and this distinction you can see between Shivites and Vishnivites in Hinduism. I have tastes both sides of the “belief” spectrum — and actually perhaps more, but the mystical stuff is yet another story. All to say again, my experience is far less limited than you imagine.

    (3) “The Other Christians are Wrong”
    And here is the interesting one, I think:
    You are basically criticizing all the fundamentalists, evangelicals, Pentecostals and more that I just happened to mention here. You also saying many self-proclaiming Christians are confusing “Theological and exegetical error” (whatever that means), You say “too many contemporary Christians functionally take faith to mean ‘pretending to believe what you know ain’t so.’ And other such criticisms.

    So my question — are these fundamentally confused Christians still saved while this radically confused atheist not? If so, it seems that just calling yourself a “Christian” — flying the Christian banner — is enough. But I am pretty certain you don’t believe that. So either, in your world, I have a chance to eternal life with God even if I never believe before dying, or the road to heaven is very narrow and all the Christians you criticize are as doomed as I. Or you have a very tricky, knotted-up notion of salvation. But perhaps there are other options I am missing.

    I have a number four, but may save that for another post, because it is not essential to the core of my OP.

    Thank you ahead of time for dialogue. Reminder, as much as you can avoid Christianese, the better for me, because you will remember that though I was a believer, I no longer take scripture as any authority whatsoever (anyone’s!) and I find that Christianese just hides the real core issues. My guess is that you are very good at avoiding these cautions that I mention, but I wanted to say them. Thanx.

  7. @ Charity:
    Thanx. It is interesting that you and I instantly understand what I am talking about, but a believer, like the war sees us as doing just the same. Tis hard to explain. But I am glad you get it. I’d be curious how you’d answer her or others if you feel my analogy is useful. But with all analogies, it is easy to subvert — for it is just an analogy which always come packed with weaknesses.

  8. @ “the war”:
    I will use that shorter form of your name — though as I have told you, I’d prefer you using the name you use on your blog “Adrienne”. To me, saying “the warrioress” as a name, is almost like an atheist using the name “I’m Right” — it brings out the bad side of both camps.

    As I said to Charity, the analogy invites all sort of criticism, merely because it is an analogy. But to try and answer the core of your objection: I think theology, god-talk, spiritual-language does work. Like all language, it manipulates behavior, bonds groups and much more. My contention is that all the things done with religions can be done secularly without all the complicated theological knots. And indeed, people of different religions are doing similar things using different clothing that hides the similarity. Angry fundamentalists of certain streaks, for instance, whether Christian or Muslim, are using their theology to tie complicated word knots, and this-is-God-so-shut-up conversation stoppers.

    Likewise, those who love generosity to the poor or social justice of every religion use theology yarn to pull together their desired actions and those of others. These people probably have far more in common with each other than their theology allows — their theologies can often place each other in Hell.

    All to say, I am speaking about the abstract, god-talk knots which disguise who the real person is.

    I can see that you’d not want to agree with that — because it points to a kind of universalism and the unnecessariness of the Jesus-story, but I thought I’d try to explain better.

  9. @ Neil Rickert:
    See my note to “the War” below. The analogy invites the criticism you mention, but I am using it to point at something else.

    I agree that all systems are self-referential and contrived in very real senses. But that is not what was trying to get at. I guess the analogy only works if you get it! :-)
    So much for analogies.

    I may have to edit this post after more comments, depending on the feedback I get and if it gives me ideas of how to improve the analogy to keep the conversation more focused on my intended issues.

    Thanks, mate.

  10. Note to commentors: I have just improved the image with a labels of theology ideas on the ropes. I change the expression to theology-knots and explained what I saw lying under/inside the knots — a person. Hopefully these little tweaks help focus my intended point. Thank you for the comments.

  11. @ Sabio

    (1) & (3) “Agnostic Christian” Is it just a word to minimize agnostic? Does it distinguish groups of Christians in an important way? What are the consequences of you claiming that other Christian groups are wrong?

    No, I’m not trying to minimize it. I’m actually pretty radically skeptical; for example, I think a person can have good reasons to doubt almost everything quite fundamentally. I would take seriously the notion that we might be in a giant simulation, for example. (I don’t really think we are, but I do think the cosmos is a narrative, which is pretty close). I think that people who are not agnostic about these issues are wrong. But I don’t think that the salvation Christianity is concerned with is primarily about being right or wrong, so when I think someone is wrong about something, I just think that they are wrong. It doesn’t mean they go to hell, or can’t be in community with me. If I thought that, then I’d think everyone is going to hell, and I couldn’t be in community with anyone. We’re all wrong about all kinds of things, and we should try to be less wrong …because who wants to be wrong? I don’t think it is an easy matter to correct mistakes, even obvious ones. But I think people should try to be correctable when they are wrong, without pretending to be ‘corrected’ when they aren’t convinced that they are wrong, and without being too easily convinced just by the suggestion that someone thinks they are wrong. And of course, I can be wrong about thinking someone else is wrong :) In which case, I would like to be corrected.

    (3) Are Christians with wrong theology saved, while atheists are not?

    In Matthew 25, the core standard for final judgment is how people treat the poor. People who didn’t realize they were unfaithful to Jesus are surprised to find that they were. People who didn’t think they knew Jesus are surprised to find out that they were faithful in caring for him and keeping his commands. Jesus also tells a parable of two servants: one who says they will do his will and doesn’t, and one who says he won’t, but does. If Jesus is the standard, I think we should expect surprises. I have no problem with the idea that nominal Christians face judgment (and in fact, particularly harsh judgment), while nominal atheists find surprising mercy. All of this has very little to do with their ability to discern finer points of epistemology, which we should do in the interest of pursuing truth. Additionally, I don’t consider this judgment and mercy to be primarily about pie in the sky when we die (although I think that when the cosmos is reconciled to God, there might well be amazing pie.) I consider it to be, in the first instance, about the moral standard that animates history. So if a nation of atheists cares for the poor, I think that nation receives peace and mercy. And if a nation fails to care for its poor, I believe it receives judgment. Same with a family, or an individual, but in less obvious ways; I don’t think that if you give to the poor, you will necessarily reap obvious physical rewards, for example. Instead, this is the broad tendency and trajectory of history. In other words, the arch of history is long, but it bends toward justice. And that includes a surprising kind of justice in which God rewards faithful atheists more than faithless ‘Christians’.

    (2) Limited sample

    Fair enough :) At any rate, I should have added that I think that even Catholicism (which has a much more robust understanding of faith) and the Biblical witness point to some of this confusion as well. The Greek word “pistis” in its rhetorical meanings is actually closer to our contemporary notion of “thinking” than the Hebrew concept of Emunah. Part of what you see in the Bible is some of the effort to deal with the translation of emunah into a Greek context, with the audience clearly misunderstanding at some points. The neoclassicism of the Enlightenment revived and sharpened some of this confusion, in a way that I think has been ultimately clarifying. I was mainly focusing on the branch of the Christian tree that you mentioned, because the whole story of these words is a bit more complicated, but still interesting. I don’t think that any branch has ever gotten everything right, and I don’t think I have everything right. I think we should all proceed together on a journey, to be as un-wrong as we can :)

  12. @ Dan Heck:

    “cosmos is a narrative” — that would take unpacking but since all the narratives I know have a plot designed by someone — controlled by the author, then the cosmos author cares not for humans — which is not surprising even if all earthly religions I know have the spirits giving a shit about people.

    I see that you are not a “believist” Christian — that helps me get your flavor of Christianity. Dialogue might be much easier than I expected.

    Do you think Jesus’ salvation scheme is different from Paul’s or James’?

    You never told me the answer to #3.

    Hey, do you like my new graphic?

    BTW, I didn’t understand this sentence:
    “I was mainly focusing on the branch of the Christian tree that you mentioned, because the whole story of these words is a bit more complicated, but still interesting.”

    Maybe when/if you answer #3 you can address that.

  13. BTW, The War, you said:

    “I hope we can all just be happy because we’ve made our various choices. Mine makes me happy and I hope yours does the same for you.”

    You have shared before that it is indeed unfortunate that the truth is harsh: it is unfortunate that I will burn in hell, as will my children, because we don’t believe like you.” If you really believe this, you should not hope I will be happy in my god-free choices. You should hope that I suffer and thus perhaps wake up from my foolishness which dooms me to eternal damnation which is far worse than the little happiness you wished me in my stupid choices of theological beliefs.

    I hope you see the obvious tension.

  14. @ Readers:
    The War’s Christianity is obviously very different from Dan Heck’s — well, at least how they may think about me and other godless people or nonbelievers in other faiths. Dan is more inclusive, Adrienne at this time seems more exclusive. It may be that both Dan (like me) cares more deeply about the person underneath their stories, confessions and clubs – and can care not for beliefs except as their tied to virtuous actions. If so, that is the sort of Christianity that I encourage Adrienne (The War) to move towards. I have no interest in her leaving Christianity — only that sort of Christianity.

  15. I thought I answered #3. That you feel like I didn’t answer it probably has something to do with the general confusion about the meaning of ‘salvation.’ Not that you are confused in particular, but I think everyone is confused, because the word has been used as such a rhetorical football for so long. I’m confused whenever someone says it. I think that nominalism is at least part to blame for this; I don’t like to assign specific technical meanings to common words, because it creates this kind of confusion. (The same thing happens in economics). For a lot of theologies, “salvation” has basically become a technical term with a highly specified definition beyond the common meaning of the word. I tend to take salvation in its plain meaning: being saved, meaning saved from some particular bad thing. So if the question is: “Are these fundamentally confused Christians still saved while this radically confused atheist is not?” I would say that people are only saved through faith in Christ, meaning faithfulness to Christ. Faithfulness includes an element of conviction and commitment (it is not less than being convinced), but the more important element is remaining true to the commitment. This dual meaning creates interesting scenarios: the norm might be for people to make and keep commitments, or not make commitments and not keep them. However, you also have people who don’t make a commitment, but keep it anyway. And you have people who make a commitment, but don’t keep it. Jesus has a parable that can be read, fairly directly, to address this: Matthew 21, the parable of the two sons. The son who says “no” but then does the work is obedient and faithful. The one who says “yes” but doesn’t is disobedient and faithless. The primary meaning of faithfulness is not saying the right thing or thinking the right thing; it is keeping a commitment. Still, the norm (and the best option) is to both say and do the right thing; but when push comes to shove, Jesus is quite clearly about doing the right thing. The story concludes with Jesus admonishing the chief priests by saying, shockingly: “the prostitutes and tax collectors are going into heaven before you.” I think Jesus would tell this story to our own chief priests and conclude by saying to them, “Look, atheists are going into the Kingdom before you.” So yes, we are saved only by faith in Jesus. When I say that, I don’t mean what some people think it means…but I think I mean what Jesus means by it.

    Now, by ‘saved’ do I mean that you get pie in the sky when you die? Sure, indirectly. But the primary meaning is that we experience aionios life, the life of the age, life in its fullness, a life aligned with God’s direction in history. By extension, I’m comfortable with the idea of unending future life, but I don’t claim to know much about that. I think we have made secondary meanings primary. If you asked me to speculate about atheists and endless life in the coming age (even more than all thought is speculative), I’d speculate that atheists who were faithful to Jesus have less of themselves to burn away in the final judgment than some nominal Christians who were unfaithful. And in this age, when we are living now, I would reserve my harshest critiques and sternest warnings for nominal Christians who profess that Jesus is Lord, but are not faithful to him.

  16. OK, I will unpack the Christianese — tell me if I get it right:

    “people are only saved through faith in Christ, meaning faithfulness to Christ”

    People have to do what you feel Jesus told us to do — care for the poor — then we will be “saved”.

    So a Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist could be saved even if they heard the gospel of Jesus and rejected the story as made-up, as long as they were good people (care for the poor, love others as themselves and all that).

    Yet you want to hug on to the orthodox phrase, “we are saved only by faith in Jesus.” even though you mean listen to what he said to do. I get it, whatever it takes, I guess.

    I can see that as far as Christians go, except for the jargon, you are right there on top of my favorite sort of Christians — thank you for explaining. You were right, we probably have more in common than not. It is just that you use Christianity to color your efforts at virtue.

    Thank you kindly for explaining. I’d be curious to hear what “War” (above) thinks of your Christianity. I now that my occasional commentor, Luke (a liberal Christian) is probably very close to you too. You can see the problem with calling one thing “Christianity” — thus I can’t see why folks like you don’t just drop the jargon — well, I lied, I think I know why, but that is another conversation — but in short, I think it has to do with investments.

  17. Hello Sabio,

    I appreciate you labeling the ropes to help give people a visual. Personally, I already saw various doctrines, scriptures and rituals in my mind. Those were the very things that tied me up in so much drama. There are tens of thousands of religions, sects and denominations and even when there is a small group of believers who are of the same faith, mind and spirit discord breaks out. Low and behold, a new religion, sect or even flavor of that same denomination begins. As you more less said, everyone owns the copyrights to God. The next guy’s belief system is always more powerful, more exciting and more authentic than the previous believer’s set up. I’ve personally experienced this among Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Baptists, and Jews. Each within their own religion and/or sect. I may not have had as much experience as you (Sabio), but I have had a good bit of dealings with Christians, Messianic Jews, Jews and Buddhists. My only personal dealings with Muslims were through Facebook years ago.

    Many of us accept a particular belief system because we are inundated with scriptures and doctrines of our particular location’s customs or the values of the family that we are born into. This is nothing new. I think what Sabio is saying, everyone thinks they’ve got it together and are sold on the goods that they are selling. However, what people are evangelizing is a faith complex with heroes of the faith, prophecies, miracles, commandments and judgments. For a God who is not the “author of confusion”, He certainly seems disorderly.

    As a woman, I can say that my questions were not welcomed in most Churches. (Christianity wasn’t something that I tried on for size, I fully drenched myself in it for four decades.) Saying something as simple as “I don’t understand” would spark outrage and a call to submission. Suddenly, I’m a Jezebel. The “spirit” of Jezebel is supposedly a “rebellious” spirit. Funny how her husband (in the Bible) was evil King Ahab, but no one ever talks about a “spirit of Ahab”. I would expect nothing but that kind of sexism from an Abrahamic religion. Christians criticize Muslim women for their burqas and I think that’s hilarious because all women of traditional belief systems are wrapped up in their burden of religion. We are dogs (Jesus to the Samaritan woman) and annoyances (Jesus to his mother regarding his first recorded miracle, “Woman, it is not my time.”). We are forced to marry misogynistic kings for the better good of our race (Esther). As women, we are expected to literally throw ourselves at the feet of a man related to our dead husband, not just for our livelihood, but to continue the family line and to keep the lineage of Jesus in tact (Ruth).

    I could go on, but I’ll stop there. Let the apologetics begin, as I know they will.

  18. @ Charity,
    Superbly said !
    And you also show how some Christians have a nice sweet, lamb-hugging Jesus in their mind and forget the Jesus who said kill children who curse their parents or treat nonbelievers like dogs or swine.

    The rant about the role of women is excellent — I , of course, fortunately don’t know it personally. But it is evil.

  19. @ Sabio

    Appreciate the conversation, and am glad that we have so much common ground. I do want to be very clear about something though: I don’t just use Christianity to flavor a pre-existing notion of virtue. I genuinely think that gets things exactly backwards: I think that whatever virtue there is in me, or anyone, flows from Jesus. As strange as it sounds, I am genuinely convinced that Jesus is the Lord, and that he (in particular) is judging and will judge the world. I’ve been an atheist, and a liberal Christian before, and I am simply neither of those. I also believe that baptism and the Eucharist are central to God’s work of salvation, and that people who are not participating in those are missing out on something extremely important; unless you are following what I am saying about corporate salvation (group-level salvation), it is difficult for me to explain those though. But Hindus and Buddhists, as collectives, do not experience the fruits of collective salvation without this sacramental life; that doesn’t mean they go to hell, but it does mean that something essential is missing. Whatever the case, my faith is concerned with a lot more than being good and virtuous. I just think that “thinkism” involves a rather fundamental mis-understanding of “faith.” But note: I’m not a nominalist. I’m not saying that “faith” actually means something different, because I like a different definition. I am saying that “thinking” or “thinking without warrant,” which have come to be primary meanings of the word, are quite far from what Jesus or historic Christianity were concerned with. I think this case can be made, convincingly, on the basis of the textual and historic evidence, such that a conservative Christian like myself who is open to good argument would be convinced. If someone wants to know, as well as we can, “what the Bible really says,” I think my reading is a better reading of what it actually says, and what the author’s intent was.

    So I’m happy that you consider at least some of my views on God’s judgment morally acceptable :) I do think conscience is an important guide (and one with a good scriptural basis), and am troubled when people embrace positions that are obviously evil, and that obviously violate any properly-formed conscience, in the name of Jesus. I don’t believe that God is a moral monster, even though plenty of people defend morally monstrous positions and claim that they are from God. Still, my means of reading Christian texts and my respect for those texts are all quite conservative; I haven’t arrived at these positions because I just felt like they sounded good. I have arrived at them through prayer, study, community and careful, close readings of the texts, and am happy to defend any of these readings in terms of orthodox Christianity. In the same way that I am happy to engage with you, on the basis of your priors, I am also happy to engage others who contest Christian orthodoxy on shared priors (like the authority of scripture, authority of tradition where relevant, the use of certain methods of reading, etc.) I think a religion of “just be virtuous” can provide some understanding of virtue, but it would be wrong in other important ways, and it really isn’t my religion at all. There is a great deal to all of that grace and forgiveness business as well…

  20. Thanx Dan.
    Yes, I mis-typified you a large bit.
    But what better way to clarify than saying “I heard …”

    So, for some more clarification (again unloading your Christianese), three questions:

    (1) “whatever virtue there is in me, or anyone, flows from Jesus. ”

    (a) I imagine you feel nonbelievers can have virtue? [assuming yes]
    (b) So from whence do you think any virtue comes from me? Did it come from Jesus when I was a Christian and now another place?
    (c) I imagine you want this to be something more than “Jesus is my sole inspirations” as you’d want to separate “Krishna is my sole inspiration” or “Einstein is my inspiration.”
    (d) Does the flowing come from a spirit Jesus (Holy Spirit) or some other concoction?

    (2) “Jesus…is judging and will judge the world.”
    Jesus, right, not God? Or Jesus through God or something more complex? Point being, the world is being judged now???? Meaning you believe in an actively intervening God/Jesus — punishing bad, rewarding good?

    (3) Without sacraments, Hindus, Buddhists and me can’t “experience the fruits of collective salvation.”
    Boy, I can’t begin to untangle that.

    Dude, you should make a web site and just write a short series of “What I believe” posts and link to them. That is one reason why I built this site. Why haven’t you done it. Seems very inefficient to do this.

    So after your above credo, I see we may be very different. You are certainly wrapped up in the lingo.

  21. I’m a standard trinitarian, so I think Jesus is the second person of the Godhead. Regarding the Christianese: I’m happy to try to translate anything you like, as well as I can, if you are happy to learn the meaning of the words. Here, if you like, you can just say that I think Jesus is God, and there is also more to God.

    Conceptually, one way you might get at what I’m saying is this: let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we are inside of a story being told by God. God, the author, is a person. But an author can write herself, or himself, into a story. We might say that Jesus is God writing Godself into the story. Is Jesus God? Yes. But there is also the person of God writing the story, and they are distinct. At any rate, God came before me, and insofar as I am a character in God’s story, any virtue in me has God as its ultimate source. This general structure is repeated historically: it is because of Jesus acting in history that I am able to manifest any virtue at all. This would be true in your case, or anyone’s case. Your personal manifestation of virtue doesn’t need to flow from any verbal or mental affirmation, any more than the son who obeyed his father was logically required to say he would, first. To extend this authorship metaphor (and I’ll note that it is a model or metaphor, not a hypostasis itself), maybe the Holy Spirit is the breath of God reading the story as it is written. Ultimately, I think we should approach these metaphors and reflections playfully. These are some extreme extensions of the human imagination. When approached in this way, I view the trinity as a highly generative doctrine. By that, i mean that it is a set of ideas that generate a large number of interesting ideas and insights. It is less about nailing down everything with perfect precision, and more about exploring a set of relationships and ideas. Either way, part of the ethical upshot of my Christianese is this: I don’t get credit for my virtue, and it doesn’t entitle me to anything. I give thanks for whatever virtue I have, and primarily consider it a gift that I have received. That doesn’t mean I hate myself or consider myself worthless, but it does help keep the ego in check.

    (2) Oh yes. I believe in a very active God. Holy problem of evil, batman! Since you are familiar with theodicy, I’ll give a bit of shorthand here: I believe in a primary theodicy of overcoming, within which narrative, free will and soul-formation theodicies can find a morally defensible expression. That is dense. Lots to unpack. But yes, I am not on your favorite Christians schema. Sorry :) (Actually, I’m really not sorry. ;))

    At any rate, if you want to read the book I’m working on, I’d be happy to share it. You’re right: there is a ton to discuss.

    Finally, on the lingo: I think wherever possible, we should keep common words common. That means that I do have to use some technical phrases, now and then. When economists make words like “efficiency” into shorthand for technical terms like “pareto optimality,” they cause all kinds of problems. People start to think they are actually talking about efficiency. In the same way, there is useful jargon and shorthand in every field. You wouldn’t respond to a physicist by saying, “Hey, you’re using physics-ese! You’re really wrapped up in this nonsense, aren’t ya? Gosh that stuff is silly.” Now, theology isn’t physics. By a longshot. But the same drive to compaction in language, to creating dense phrases and expressions that need to be unpacked, is present. And, I think, perfectly defensible…and even good. I’m trying to use the level of compaction that is appropriate for you, since you have presented yourself as someone who is well-studied in Christianity. Still, I am happy to unpack anything. Cognitively, I think it is often helpful to start with the dense phrase and then unpack it, instead of using plain language alone and then trying to map it onto the dense phrase. I think it is probably more fruitful, most of the time, to proceed that way. At any rate, I think we should expect any belief system to contain unique concepts, and I think the listener who wants to understand and comment on a religion has the same duty to try to understand those concepts that a student of physics would have in studying a physics textbook. I think this is the case even if you only consider religious language to lack any real-world mapping. If you preferred not to comment on Christianity, you would probably have less of an obligation to try to understand it. (This whole discussion of the duty to translate is an interesting one, and worth serious attention as well :))

  22. One other note on your use of the term “believer.” This is a good example of how one, seemingly small, adjustment in the definition of terms has cascading effects throughout a theological system. If you take my definition of the term seriously, your questions themselves suddenly seem strangely formed. If we have gotten this single term wrong, a great number of claims are not what they previously appeared to be. The Reformation, to a significant degree, is rooted in Luther’s re-definition of this term single term. That makes it challenging to have a conversation, but I think it is a conversation that rewards the effort.

  23. Yep, I think I was way off. And I have had enough Christianese for one day, I’m afraid: Pearls to swine or foolishness to the perishing, I guess.

    This perishing pig’s perceptions are best illustrated by this Peanuts cartoon:

    So, no, thanks, and I won’t want to be reading your book or diving much further into your version of Christianity. I already know enough to know there is tons we don’t agree on and won’t in the future. Sometimes I dive into the various theologies, but for the most part they deeply bore me: be they Buddhist, Christian, Islam or others — just a bunch of convoluted knots — as the OP shows clearly.

    Thanx for all the effort, though.

  24. Right, “believer” vs “follower” vs “devotee” vs. ….
    Always different from someone else in critical ways, eh?

  25. ? I’m just pointing to the distinction we were discussing, between “faith” as “thinking” and “faith” as “faithfulness.” Who is faithful/who is a believer? This is a question that Jesus addresses pretty directly, and what he says happens to challenge what plenty of people seem to think he said. At any rate, it sounds like you have internalized a lot of nasty things Christians have said to you. I’m sorry that they said those things; I think they were wrong. I certainly don’t consider you a swine, and I’m not so sure that my thoughts are fine pearls ;) I’m just always happy to answer an honest question to the best of my ability. Feel free to interrogate me any time.

  26. It was nice of Dan to drop by and beautifully illustrate the point of your OP firsthand…

    Like Charity, I totally get it and think it’s a great analogy. Looking forward to more unpacking.

  27. Wow, Dan Heck, it did not take you long to play psychologist — lots of Christians come here and do that. Unfortunately, it is rather generic. They write off us atheists as hurt by their fathers, damaged by bad Christians, running from their sin, blinded by their pride and any number of other psychological minimizations. Though I know you do not mean it in a bad way.

    BTW, I wasn’t quoting Christians, I was quoting Jesus & Paul (Matt 7:6 & 1 Cor 1:18) — but I am sure you know that.

    But I do appreciate your time. In my next post I have decide to repeat the cartoon that I used above and clarify how I view theology — yours or countless other sects and religions.

    I will “interrogate you” again in the future if I am curious again but for now I am fine, thanx. Feel free to ask me questions any time you’d like too. And I thank you for playing along. Maybe you can jump in on my next post.

    Meanwhile, referring to my deep hurt by Christians and your apologizing for them (which has happened many times on this blog) reminds me of another funny peanuts cartoon:

  28. Oh Sabio, I understand you. I get it. The funny thing is you and I are two totally different people. Yet, we often clearly know what the other one is writing about.

    It would be really easy for me to try to be an atheist evangelist. Believe me, I was holding back on my last comment.

    There’s an expression I heard often throughout my die hard Christian days, “Don’t let the devil get you alone”. I’m bringing it up because it was NOT secular and/or atheists books and film footage that made me doubt and ultimately, leave the faith. It was all things related to the Bible. I spent years going to so many people for spiritual, emotional, mental and Biblical help within Church and to Christians outside of Church. I finally realized that they were all basically recycling the same information and it was an endless cycle of cliche’s:
    Just trust God!
    Get over your pity party!
    God will make a way!
    He who begun a good work in you will be faithful to complete it!
    (You get the idea.)
    I once had a pastor that spent half a year in the book of Ephesians. That’s six chapters in six months. I left at that point, but he continued on that for at least a few more months. As a Christian, I didn’t solely rely on a spiritual leader for my growth, but come on, that’s just ridiculous!

    When I got by myself and really, really looked into all of those doctrines and scriptures that genuinely bothered me for many years, I knew I was done. That’s why Christians say “Don’t let the devil get you alone”. You’ll start to truly think for yourself, leave Church and take your tithes and offerings with you.

    There’s actually televangelists out there like Jimmy Swaggart who tells his viewers that their Churches are preaching the real Gospel. He encourages them to drop out of Church and send their tithes to his Church. You can even sign up for membership with his Church and you’ll get a certificate declaring that you have done so. He even encourages people to show up in person to receive his right hand of fellowship and their little papers. Thanks to his channel, my parents think gays and homosexuals are taking over the U S.

  29. @ Michael B,
    I am glad you understood my point. Dan is very generously answering questions I asked — I appreciate it. But you are right, it is illustrating the knot that I drew above. I wonder if he has seen the new-improved version! The first one I put up had no words. I guess I could put one up that said, “A Generic Religious Person’s Theology” and put in “Wan” on every rope.

    But in my next post I hope to show that though I am dismissing the theology with the joke — there is another level in which I take it seriously — more on that in the next post.

  30. @ Charity,
    Thanks again.
    Actually, I think Dan Heck would probably think that your rejection of Christianity is merely a rejection of a bad form of Christianity. He would sympathize with you and then help you see the true message of Jesus.
    Just my guess. Feel free to ask him if you wish. Get your nickel ready! ;-) (See the cartoon above.)

  31. @Sabio, Yeah, Dan isn’t directly playing the role of exclusivist IMO, but what a knotted mess. Life is messy enough without the “theological clothing” as you so aptly put it.

    In regards to Xianity, if “salvation” is so necessary and critical, why would God allow for so many versions and interpretations? A placard in the back of the airplane seat in front of me and some lights in the aisle would be sufficient, thanks.

  32. @ Sabio

    Sorry that my effort at empathy offended you. Glad to know that you are opposed to that kind of reading :) I was sort of hoping to see something that would let me challenge the rampant psychologizing that is going on in this post. Thanks for being open to me asking some questions. Here are mine:

    1) In what way do you see my effort to intuit an implicit psychological mechanism as different from yours, when you say: ‘Some folks settle into one of these complex knotted nests, but I just saw the weaving at its deepest level (the mind)’? What enables you to psychologize all of these people in this way, and how do you know you are right?

    2) Do you take complexity as evidence, on the face, that someone’s positions are wrong or incoherent? If so, why?

    And a friendly suggestion: it could be clarifying to distinguish between irrational uncertainty (which I would join you in challenging), and complexity, which might require more nuanced treatment.

  33. Ugh, sorry everybody for all of my typos!

    Yeah, I thought that I was just exposed to the wrong kind of Christianity all of those years. I tried my best to follow Jesus, no matter what!

    Christians would be alarmed to see how the Bible stacks up to the Talmud and Koran. I know they like to think that the Bible is holy and superior to all other ancient holy books, but it still holds the same violence, manipulation, murder, child abuse and misogyny as the other two books I’ve mentioned. Don’t think for a minute that just because you read the King James Version you’re getting the “real” deal either. It’s full of political ulterior motives.

    I tell you what, sister and brother Christian. Tell Jesus to come and visit Sabio, Michael and me today. Now, I don’t want him to come while I’m asleep and groggy. I want Him to come to me while I’m thinking clearly and my eyes are wide open. I won’t brainwash myself with preaching, reading scripture or worship music to prepare the way of the Lord either. I want him to come to me, tell me exactly who he is and let me know which ones of you are his real followers and which ones of you are not. Then, now this is important, I want him to show me the original transcripts of the Bible. Not the ones that monks and rulers screwed up or changed. I want the original Hebrew and Greek and I want him to clearly explain it all to me in English. Oh, and he can’t do this when I’m by myself. He needs to walk up to me in front of others, especially if he wants others to be saved and healed because after all, aren’t signs and wonders for the unbeliever? Again, he also needs to visit Sabio and Michael and their friends and families around them as well and show them these same scriptures too. Now when that happens we all will make sure that you all are the first ones to know. We’ll then change our blogs, our methods and our reasoning to glorify God, Jesus and Holy Spirit.

    Good luck!

    Yeah, Sabio, I’m done.

  34. @ MichaelB,
    Yeah, Dan, like Luke, is fun. Lots of redeeming qualities despite being Christian. ;-)
    [said playfully intentionally knowing Dan (and Luke) may be listening]

    You mentioned a very important point I was sketching in my head: Rebuttal. More later on your good point that salvation should not be so complicated or unclear — when a god is suppose to be all-powerful. I would understand it if god were just some other stupid government bureaucrat. Shit, maybe [s]he is! ;-)

  35. @ Charity

    I share your opposition to sexism. In saying this, I’m not trying to convert you. I’d just like to affirm my solidarity with you, in that.

  36. @ Dan Heck
    You didn’t offend me — just surprised me. I didn’t expect that tactic. Maybe it is “offend” , hmmm not sure.

    Either way, I don’t care now that I labeled the move.

    Not sure what you meant by “rampant psychologizing” you mentioned in your “Tu Quoque” move. But I assume it must be the same as your first question.

    (1) When I said “folks settle into …” you will note that I did not give a psychological reason like: because they were hurt by society, they are neurotically scared of death, they are control freak or any other such things.

    So both using the “Tu Quoque” fallacy and making a false claim don’t work here. But I think the point is that you realize the problem with that approach and instead of admitting it, you are counter attacking. Just a guess.

    Now, (2):
    Sounds rhetorical. So I won’t answer.
    Instead, you may find this post that I did pertinent:
    Depth and Complexity Deception“. I wrote it in response to an Astrologer who ‘graced’ this blog for a while. I can certainly tell you this: If something is bullshit, best to bury it in tons of convoluted detail. But can reality be complex — of course.
    But I imagine you are simply saying, “Look Sabio, just because my theology is mind-boggling complicated, don’t mean its wrong.” And I’d agree with that out of principle, but only out of principle. But that would be a boring observation on both our parts. See the post.

    (3) Lastly, as to your suggestion. If there are different types of insecurity — I can see that “irrational” would be one, but how to contrast that to “complexity” escapes me. And actually, I have no idea what you are getting at there.

  37. @ MichaelB

    That is a good question, and I think it has good answers of varying complexity. I’d be happy to answer it for you, if you donate a nickel to Oxfam International ;)

  38. @ Charity
    Wow, that was a rant!
    PS: don’t worry about the typos. but WP does underline most of them in red for you before posting, I think. I must say I never notice them because your writing is so damn good!

  39. @ Dan and MichaelB,
    Maybe I should do a post called “Salvation-Lite” and let the dialogue continue there on that subject — great topic.

  40. @ Sabio

    (1) So I was thinking of this part: ‘I began to see the same silly, yet serious efforts to gain certainty, direction, a banner, an identity, hope and much more. Yet under or inside the knot was a simpler person who the knots obscured. Some folks settle into one of these complex knotted nests, but I just saw the weaving at its deepest level (the mind).’ I simply mean that you seem to think you have a lot of deep insights into peoples’ psychology, which seems to be offered as an explanation for their actions. Sorry for not clarifying my terms more. so anyways, are you suggesting that I should read this statement as not expressing an insight into their psychology that you believe you possess? And should I not read this as implying that you think this has some kind of explanatory force? As another example of what I mean: you called my attempt at empathy a “tactic.” As I read it, that seems to imply that I was deliberately (or perhaps subconsciously) deploying a manipulative device. This also seems to imply some kind of insight into my psychology. Unless, for course, you are just using language that induces suspicion as a tactic, without actually thinking your claims are justified. Et tu Sabio!

    (2) I see how that might look like a Tu Quoque fallacy, but that would be a misreading of my intent. If I were measuring out something to you that I didn’t expect to be measured back to me, it would be a fair accusation. But I actually want to take whatever I dish out. I think a reasonable response to these questions would be to say that you actually do think you have some degree of psychological insight into other people, maybe thanks to all of those handy mirror neurons we’ve got kicking around. That could open the door for us agreeing that some degree of psychologizing is fine, as long as we are cautious, and aware of how easy it is to misattribute motives to people. (See infrahumanization.) I suppose, in a more straightforward way, that I could simply say that I think you are systematically misattributing motives to people. And I am confident of that, because I am pretty darn confident that you are misattributing motives to me. For example, when I tried to express love, you decided that this must be something else…a tactic. That is a classic infrahumanization pattern.

    (3) One set of variables: degree of certainty. (More or less). Another set of variables: complexity of beliefs (more or less). Graph it. Make quadrants. Go nuts. For example, a person can be highly certain of a simple belief (ex: I am God!). Or they can be highly certain of a complex belief (this heliocentric model of the solar system is better than geocentric models!). Or they can be relatively uncertain regarding a simple belief (this is my hand, and not an illusion). Or they can be relatively uncertain regarding a complex belief (this geocentric model of the solar system seems like it still might have something going for it…) Your post deals with the two in a way that critiques highly certain, complex beliefs. This makes it easy for people to follow your map, and engage in a kind of guilt-by-association argument: that belief is complex, so it must be part of this whole crazy certainty phenomenon, which we know is actually just motivated by a desire for direction, a banner, an identity, hope and much more. (Because Sabio told us so!) Which, frankly, is how I figured out that Galileo was full of crap. Galileo is a classic example of this complex, wild eyed certainty in action ;)

    Am I Galileo? Heck no. But it is thoughts like these that make me pay attention to people who may be saying things that sound crazy.

    At any rate, my core points here are actually rather simple. For example, Emunah is poorly translated by the English word “thinking,” but that is how a lot of people have encountered it. Rectifying this feels ‘confusing’ not because it is actually complex at all. It is really very simple. If this seems ‘confusing,’ I think it is for the simple reason that it is a little bit different than what you have heard before.

  41. Hey Dan,
    (1,2,3) No, it is not that I have particularly deep insight into anyone’s deep psychology — I just began to understand OUR psychology — all of us: the common patterns, of which I write about here on this blog. And trust me, they are not deeply insightful. :-)

    As to the rest, I am tiring. We have now deteriorated into fruitless argumentation for argumentation sake. Full stop.

  42. I’ll graciously take that as a concession that everything I have said is correct ;). Have a good evening.

  43. Yeah, I am totally defeated. Damn, I should never had tangled with such a heavy weight. I, and the other readers, have learned so much. ;-)

  44. I’m up for it. Dan?

  45. @Dan

    No, there are no good answers to that question, at least not if the alternative to salvation is eternal damnation. It’s not like we’re choosing between blue and red M&Ms here. And if you believe that there is no eternal damnation, what do we need to be “saved” from in the first place? The whole discussion becomes moot at that point. The fact that you can only offer answers of “varying complexity” only serves to reinforce my point and the OP.

  46. Warning, MichaelB: I’m not sure of your theological background, but there are tons of varieties. And if Dan puts enough carefully defined terms (but with great fuzziness) and then ties complicated knots, this conversation could go on forever. Hang in there for my post “Salvation Lite” — I am working on my graphics.

    Dan has done his study, constructed discovered a very complex and useful system. You may be jumping down a rabbit hole.

  47. Dan,

    I don’t think you’re a bad guy. As a rule of thumb our (non believers) rants are generally directed to all believers (especially Christians). Former Christians behavior towards Christians is probably as bad as former smokers towards those who currently smoke. I honestly was not thinking of you specifically.

    I’m sure that you’re against sexism, but the issue I have with the Bible is the blatant misogyny. I will say this though, I am not one of those women who feels that in order to change men’s behaviors we are to humiliate them by degrading men altogether. There’s a parody of “Blurred Lines” going around and I absolutely hate it! I hate it more than the original. I don’t believe in down playing the role of men. I am married and a stay at home mom to two little boys. My best friends in my single days were often men. It has been my experience that men connect with women who they feel are actually listening to them. And no, I have never had an affair with a married man nor have I had a friendship with a single man that’s led to a romantic relationship. Men often don’t share their minds or hearts with their wives because their wives often judge them and correct them, that’s why when they find an upfront woman with a listening ear they pour out their dreams and disappointments. It hurts everyone, including men to hear from someone, especially a lover or a wife “Uh, how are you going to do that?!” or “That’s stupid!” For men, judgments are extra harsh coming from the woman they love.

    I’m done chasing rabbits for now.

    I appreciate your balls Dan, it takes great courage for a guy like you to come to a place like this.

  48. Hey wait, we are fairly friendly here — for godless heathens, I mean.

  49. @Sabio, Just one rabbit hole? It’s more likely that there will be about fifty or more rabbit holes, unconnected, dug by different rabbits at different times, all with the appearance of being deeper than they actually are, and just as soon as I get close to the bottom of one we will somehow switch holes. Although I do suspect at some point I will wind up feeling like I have stumbled into Wonderland or be wishing I had some opium to get me there.

  50. Earnest

    What a great thread. Sorry it took me about 11 months to find it! The discourse between atheist (SL) and christian (various authors, especially DH and C), is as thoughtful, polite, incisive and modulated as I have seen anywhere in quite a while.

    I am a non-devout, lazy, blurry, unmotivated christian. As such, I find some unity with C’s points. I think one of the big problems for me with christian thought leaders with complex systems is a lack of obvious reward for devotion. That sounds harsh, let me explain.

    The problem for me comes down to heaven and hell. Back in the day, most people were fighting each other for rags to wear and rotten food to eat, until death from violence or infection came around age 30. Back then, hell was pretty easy to see. And heaven was sold as a destination if you were “good”, and it was pretty easy to visualize a situation better than the one you were in at present.

    These days, what is heaven? Well, it’s pretty much where I am right now. I would love my current existence to continue on indefinitely. What is hell? Hell in its various forms is looking more and more preventable and/or treatable as the years go by.

    So getting back to the elegant belief system (knot) built and articulated by DH. Since I am already in heaven, teasing apart his knot with him is only entertainment for me. The effort does not get me any closer to heaven, because in my own mind I am already there. Perhaps some future life catastrophe will strike me to enhance my religiosity and drive me toward the constructs of DH once again, but at present my enthusiasm for following his logical twists and turns is limited at best.

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