Monday, June 14, 2010

Hope and Fear

Hope and fear. Are they feelings? Thoughts? States of being? I don’t know. What I do know is that they are two things that I am very familiar with. There is not a time in my life in which I can remember not having them or perhaps I should say not being with them.

As I examine my life I find an odd change in what I hope for and what I fear. In my youth I feared disappointing God but I did not fear wasting my time because I knew there was more to come after this life. And what I hoped for was to be faithful to Christ in all things whatever the cost but I did not hope for intellectual honesty or the genuine character to stand up for what is right no matter the cost. But as I examine my life now I find that the tables have turned. Now I fear wasting my time pining away for whatever does or does not come next but I do not fear disappointing any god or gods. Now I hope and work towards intellectual honesty and the genuine character to stand up for what is right whatever the cost but I no longer hope to be faithful to Christ in all things. And one reason I no longer hope this is because the cost is too great. In order to be faithful to the Christ of Christianity I must (and I believe most others) sacrifice intellectual integrity and the pursuit of an authentic morality. Faith ultimately demands ignorance, this does not mean stupidity but usually an intentional blindness or a willingness to stop searching and cease questioning. Faith says be obedient, just keep your head down and do as you are told. By no means is obedience bad in and of itself but when we choose to be obedient to an authority that places itself above moral questioning then our obedience becomes a character flaw that exposes our own trepidations or lack of concern for seeking to do what is truly right.

There is a reason people fly airplanes into buildings it is because faith demands it. Faith demands obedience and fidelity to the one that commands you to act no matter what action is commanded. The morality of the command is of no consequence rather it is only the authority of the one giving the commands that matters. The only wiggle room available to people of faith trying to distance themselves from those who do evil in the name of God is simply arguing over what their silent authority has actually commanded, not about the required response to any given command. The only moral action faith recognizes is obedience. According to the Bible disobedience was the first and chief sin of humanity. If God says kill one must kill there is no other option for faith and so I do not want to be a person of faith but rather a person seeking truth, willing to reject authorities that clearly command evil.

Now I can talk a big game, indeed, but I will not pretend that these new hopes and these new fears never waiver. There are many times I look back at where I used to be and where I am now and wonder if I've made a huge mistake with the path I have now chosen. Sometimes I still hope that there might be something more for us after death, after our life here on earth and that in some way I am of eternal significance. This hope is occasionally accompanied by times of fear particularly the fear of hell. What if traditional Christianity (Islam too) is right about their being both a heaven and a hell with eternal life for some and eternal torment for others? And what if the choices I've made and all my efforts to live a good life ultimately lead me to that eternal torment? These times are few but they are real.

When I was a Christian I had neither this hope (for something more) nor this fear (hell). Heaven was a given and hell was simply not thought about. Hell wasn't actually tangible or real it was a doctrine to be accepted but not dwelled upon. I think the easiest way to maintain one’s belief in hell is to never make any friends who don't share your beliefs. It sounds silly but I truly was insulated in my Christian bubble, not that I didn't know any non-Christians but I simply had no genuine connection to them except in theory. I “loved” them because God did but love of course only really meant trying to make them believe the things I believed. Once you start to make true friends with those who do not share your eschatology you discover that there is simply no reason for them to go to any sort of hell except for the silly math equations (Rom. 3:23; 6:23; John 3:16 ) you were taught as a child. Another thing I have noticed is that in all of the people I have met and all the friends I have made I've never once met a person who thought they were going to hell, no matter what their religion happened to be or not be. While this is but a small sampling it would not surprise me to find out that of all the people on this planet who believe that hell exists not a single one of them believes they are going to be the ones residing there. Ah, the convenience of our personal beliefs.

The other oddity that is raised by this hope for something “more” and this occasional fear of eternal punishment is that they expose my previous beliefs for what they were, prudent self-interest. While I did not view my Christian beliefs in that light, few do, I see that what I believed was not believed because of intellectually inquiry or moral testing but rather because it was good for me. It made me feel good and just as importantly, though again I would not have said it this way, it insured me eternal life. If morality is nothing more than blind obedience in order to gain the greatest reward then does morality have any inherit value beyond prudence? Can one do what is right merely for right’s sake?

Many I have talked to believe there must be something more after death because ultimately they believe there must be some greater purpose to the world, which I think is a nice way of saying they believe they are too important to simply stop existing. It seems that if the belief in hell is the price to ensure that they live forever then so be it. Christians appear willing to accept mystery when it comes to the existence of evil and the suffering of others but not when it comes to their own eternal well-being. For them certainty must and does exist when it comes to their own salvation. Once again the convenience of that idea seems worth noting. For me this has switched. I have come to accept mystery when it comes to death particularly my own but not when it comes to idea of eternal evil and the suffering of others. It is worth giving up heaven to be rid of hell. If there is a God he/she does not deserve adoration simply because he/she offers great rewards for docile compliance.

In the fictional dialogs I recently posted with Satan as the main character there is one point where he is arguing with a theologian and the theologian smugly accuses Satan of making arguments that are personally harmful and self-defeating. Satan responds, “Would I be Satan if I were prudent? Or egotistical? What could be more satanic than to bite the hand that feeds me, regardless of the consequence to me? Is not that how I became the Lord of Hell? Let the pious be prudent! What else is their piety, in nine cases out of ten, but enlightened selfishness? What is satanic is not egoism but the love of truth at the expense of happiness—to find one’s happiness in truth, to oppose illusion, to value integrity above God, and character above salvation.”

So that is where I find myself today, hoping to be satanic in my love of truth while fearing I am still just being pious in my prudent desire of salvation.


  1. Zach - interesting concept, and a fascinating post. I think it's a tad unfair to make faith synonymous with obedience, though. As I can't think of a succinct way to explain it, take this example instead.
    I have faith in my friends - faith that they will not hurt me, that they will do the right thing, that they are "good" people. Sometimes, however, that faith is "tested." Sometimes my friends do things which are hurtful, sometimes they do the wrong thing, sometimes they doubt themselves. But I know their nature because it is the same as my own, and so I still have faith in them; faith that they can make amends, can change for the better.
    I realize that the "faith" most often eschewed by modern Christians (at least, the evangelical or apologetic ones) is not this kind of faith, but instead is something which may often demand mindless obedience, but this is not the kind of faith which I have in God. I have faith that God exists, in the same way that I have faith in my friends - born from love and bolstered through a positive (though not 100%) track record. This faith allows me to make mistakes and be unsure and continue seeking, but more importantly, it allows God to be imperfectly known as well (in the same way that I do not know my friends "perfectly"). It allows for growth in our relationship, not just my portion of it.
    As for fear, we all suffer it, and as such demand an odd mixture of mystery and certainty in our lives to assuage it. But this is normal, and perhaps is insurmountable for those of us not destined to be "saints," to know "the peace which passes all understanding." So be it.

  2. I was fairly confident you would not "agree" with the post but I certainly did not expect the response you gave. Thats not bad it was just surprisng to me. I don't think I have heard you speak of God in such a personal or personified way.

    My simple response to you is that while I think I understand what you mean it exposes the difficulty with language because I do not think you are using the term faith correctly. The faith I speak of is biblical faith and the traditional, hisorical use of the word. It is not a "feeling" the way it is often construed in the modern world. Rather it is about alligiance and complete trust in another, for my purposes, in God. And our relationship with God (the Abrahamic one) is not the same as with our friends or someone who is our equal. So while I think we share a similar distaste for how faith is presented by most evangelical Christians I would say they are not the ones twisting/changing its historical meaning it is those of us on the more liberal side of the spectrum.

    Look at the exemplar of faith himself Abraham. Abraham's faith is not a feeling it is an action and that action is obedience, the obedience to kill. Judaism, Christianity and Islam praise Abraham for his faith, which is his obedience and they call their adherents to always do likewise.

    Now of course given time words and their meanings change. So while I do not agree with how you are using the word I have no doubt that many would agree with you and would use the word in a similar way. So I think the reason we do not agree about what faith is, is because we are using the same word to describe two very different things. As such I remain hopeful not to be a man of faith.

    As always I love your ideas and thoughts. Thanks interacting with me. There are times I think you are the only one reading any of this, even though I know that's no true, so thanks.

  3. Z - what I love most is that you force me to reconsider my own point of view. Even if I have, in my own mind, successfully navigated such arguments before, in good faith (there's that word again) I am required to think again on the topic for your sake - and this is a boon for me as well, as it may shed light on any prior inconsistencies which I overlooked. With that long and convoluted sentence, I'm merely trying to point out that I think you're right regarding the historical understanding of faith, and how that understanding has propagated into modern times.
    I personally don't have faith such as that - I can readily admit this, though in a circumstance such as your own recent past it would have been a difficult thing to say. Perhaps my character is too weak, but I do not have faith to follow without question, to commit my whole being and all its energy and power unfailingly to one particular thing. This is the historical, Biblical faith - for Abraham to venture out of his homeland, never to return. Modern anti-religious writers have grasped onto this definition of faith, bastardized it a bit, and have shoved it into the hearts and minds of the laity, but this is where (or why) I began to seek a more appropriate definition of "faith." Is it fair to place this unwaivering Biblical faith into the mouths of normal people? The average Baptist may be foolhardy, perhaps, but they are not faithful in this sense. Consider how often they follow blindly ("faithfully") into some situation (a job, perhaps, or a marriage), find that they don't approve of it or like it, and thus change their minds, saying they had "misinterpreted the will of God" in the first place, or that God had put them through it to "test" them before allowing them to have something far better. Their excuses are just that, excuses, but it demonstrates how unwilling the average human's faith really is. We are only willing to go so far. This is why Abraham is an exemplar of faith, and not the norm (you may enjoy Kierkegaard's treatise on the subject, "Fear and Trembling"). Normal people have experiential faith - as I do with my friends.
    So, oddly enough, I think perhaps we agree in substance and disagree in semantics, but this is typical of us, isn't it? More liberal theologies would say, as Bishop Robinson did, that "faith is a constant dialogue with doubt." But our constant need to "redefine" faith is, I think, indicative of our actual faithfulness. The language evolves to suit the needs of those who speak it.

  4. I believe you are right to note that as usual we seem to agree on most points. Part of the problem always seems to be that in general I think you use gentler words then I do concerning these types of issues and I think you are better at finding unity among ideas whereas I tend to see conflict and gravitate towards dichotomies, some false some true. The harshness that often comes out in my words is usually directed at one person in particular and that is myself. I look back at the person I was and I examine those ideas, thoughts and beliefs and I remember them and feel them and then I tear them down. I have not simply moved on rather I am in constant dialog with the “me” of my past. In fact we go at it quite a bit. The problem this creates is that many people hold the same worldview as I once did and so an attack upon my old self is also an attack upon them and their beliefs. And yes that is often intentional.

    Concerning your ideas I think you are quite right to say that most people do not have the faith of Abraham but the followers of the Abrahamic God see this as a bad thing whereas I would say that it is a good thing. I have not heard a sermon about Abraham’s faith where people are not called to be more like him, as opposed to less. Obedience is the message preached. Accept and be willing to do whatever God tells you to do. So where you say it is not fair to place with idea of unwavering biblical faith in the mouths of normal people I would say that they do in fact have it there, in their mouths, even if only as an ideal. The faith of Abraham is the faith they want even if it is not the faith they have.

    I did say in my piece that the wiggle room that people of faith have is determining what was commanded, “Well what did God really say/mean; I must have misunderstood; God must be testing me.” You used the phrase “making excuses,” which I loved and completely agree with. But again there is only one proper action to the command itself and that is obedience, even if it ends up only being an ideal. I lay this out there because I believe chasing the wrong ideal is dangerous because there have been and will continue to be people, like Abraham, who will not flinch but do exactly what they believe God is commanding them to do and that is how we end up with witch hunts, crusades, pogroms, holocausts and people being buried under buildings destroyed by planes.

    You said that “perhaps my character is too weak, but I do not have faith to follow without question.” Here I cheer happily that you do not have that type of faith and would in fact argue it is because your character is too strong. As you said most people do not have that faith but rather have the “weak” kind of faith that you have but I that is a good thing and that is where the pastors, ministers and priests of Abraham’s God get it wrong.

    Abraham is a the perfect symbol of faith for me just as he is for all the Abrahamic traditions but I believe that his faith is a symbol of all that is wrong with religion because it creates the conduit that has allowed for so much of the evil and hate that religion has produced.

    Language will continue to change but that is the faith I speak of and that is the faith that frightens me and that is the faith I write against

  5. I find it intruiging that our examples of "faith" end up seeming very disjointed (in time) - following this path blindly, until coming up against some wall and turning to follow the next path blindly - like some guy saying "it must not have been God's will" or Abraham being "told" to sacrifice his son and not sacrifice his son all in one day. It sounds a bit like a temporal description of the "random walk" problem. Do we never speak of examples of an eternal steadfastness when it comes to faith?