Thursday, October 15, 2009

All is lost but hope

http://www.examiner.com/x-19272-Seattle-Faith--Agnosticism-Examiner~y2009m9d30-All-is-lost-but-hope






“On the crest of fire, our wings are burning
How glorious the pain
And the ways of God, shriek out of tune
All is lost but hope
On the crest of fire
Our wings are burning
To the wind's anthem
All is lost but hope”


~ Virgin Black

So goes the lines of a song by my favorite band of all time. Obviously very open to interpretation. I personally see the wings as those things that artificially keep us placated. Whether that’s a person, philosophy, religious idea, or false hope. I think God’s ways are narrow and very unpopular, they are out of tune with social norms and expectations as Jesus demonstrated. I’ve written about these lines before, but now I’m seeing an application to epistemology.

When I first heard this song I was in the midst of my marriage falling apart and my kids were in physical and emotional danger. I had no idea what I was supposed to do: torn between a legalistic view of marriage and the natural impulse to save my kids. This song was one of those turn-off-the-lights-and-play-it-loud-while-crying types. It resonated with my heart as my vision of future bliss burned away and I was being forced to reconcile an action (divorce) with a world-view that had no room for imperfections and drastic mistakes like this. I was a broken man, but I felt something was being born out of the ashes of my previous philosophy. A rigid pharisaical view of morality was being destroyed by the realities of past mistakes and future choices being dramatically curtailed by forces out of my control. I was truly at a point where all was lost but hope.


What grew out of the ashes of my catastrophic experience was a desire to understand and reconcile my faith with the wider world outside my previously self-imposed cultural Christianeese ghetto. Once one tenet is questioned... one rule broken, and apparent blessing comes afterward, it’s hard not to start questioning all the rest. I had divorced my wife, gained custody of my children, and even found a new wife who has been the greatest blessing I’ve ever had. So I had to ask myself: was my previous understanding of my Christian heritage a misunderstanding of its modus operandi, or was the whole thing a sham? And so a full-fledged investigation commenced.


I started really looking at the problems I perceived to be illogical or dubious in the Christian tradition. I started with the shocking revelation that my little corner of Christianity was not the epicenter nor defining element of Christianity. My modern, evangelical charismatic pocket of Christendom had divorced itself from most history further back than a hundred years, viewing most of the development of its traditions as irrelevant or downright evil. As I studied my tradition’s past and the rainbow of diverse practice and belief, I found I was slipping further and further into a spiritual relativism. How could I pronounce my little sliver of Christian practice and belief as THE very best version? How could I possibly know that? Isn’t it just as likely that Origen was more on the money, or the Eastern Orthodox church… or most likely of all, EVERYONE got a lot of things wrong?


This led to the dismaying realization that our Bible is incredibly subjective and could be manipulated into saying almost anything a particular individual or group wanted it to say. Try as they might, many, many denominations have striven to give equal weight to ALL scripture in order to systematically define what they all mean. What the basic purpose of our scriptures is. And they all come up with different answers. Yes, there is some measure of continuity, that’s what has allowed the Christian religion to persist over the last two thousand years. I don’t know of any branch that has pronounced hatred to be a positive value, or believed that Zeus is the one true God. Jesus is always the focus, but His mysterious ways and words leave so much to interpretation that we end up with millions of variations of themes, values, meanings, emotions, projections and prescriptions for living.


Within this menagerie of theological systems I found one that “fixed” many of the issues I had with paradoxical teachings. It’s called Christian Universalism, and basically teaches that all of creation will eventually be redeemed by Christ’s saving work. Rather than an eternal torture chamber, hell is a process that brings about ultimate purity and redemption. So it’s a bit heterodox, though not without a long tradition going back to the very roots of Christianity. It solves the Problem of Evil not with the scapegoat of Free-Will and pretending that God’s not responsible for this whole mess. (After all, He could have NOT created anything, right?) And rather, posits evil as a tool that brings about a greater good that EVERY human will participate in and appreciate their having gone through it.


But this new, comforting theological premise brought with it the realization that if one is attempting to explain the universe, it makes little sense to stay within the confines of one branch of human belief to do it. If one doctrine can be wrong, then so can all of them. If one denomination can be wrong, then so can all of them. If one religion can be wrong, then so can all of them. If one human institution like religion can be wrong, then so can all of them. If one sensory input can be wrong, then so can all of them. If one idea or thought can be wrong, then so can all of them.


In a world where everything is impossible to prove “All is lost but hope”. These lyrics now speak with epistemological depth to me. My wings of certainty have burned away and I feel like I’m no longer Icarus panicking as the wax melts off my wings. Now that I feel like my feet are on solid epistemological ground I’ve found peace. Deep peace. I view my previous certainties as the illusions of hope. Not illusions in the sense that they were untrue, but in that they could never be certainties. There was no way to justify them as certain without circular arguments that always get bogged down in the mire of personal interpretation and authority.


Now I see my beliefs as hopes. I do recognize a whole spectrum of perceived likelihood in the collection of hopes. For instance: my hope to have my own sculpting studio someday is more likely than my hope of getting to design and build my own castle on a mountain near the coast. And then there are hopes that I attempt to back up with logic and reason. Like my hope that there is a God. I feel like there are enough strong arguments to justify that hope. But when I go a step further with my hope that God is all-Loving… and has a perfect plan for every life that will be fulfilled, etc. Well, there really isn’t any logical way to defend that belief beyond merely hoping that it’s true.


Of course there’s a work-around to this problem. Just find an established institution that shares your hope and teaches it as absolute truth. Then, rather than saying that you believe it just because you want to, you are saying you believe it because it has been shown to be “true” by all these other smart, good looking people and the books they have. But I think the reality of this situation is that all those smart, good looking people are doing the same thing you are. Simply replacing a need for proof with community consensus.


I’m not saying that this predicament makes any particular group of people wrong or bad. Indeed, it’s inevitable that mobile, physical creatures who communicate with symbolic concepts will seek out others who share their hopes, and glom together in community to reinforce and perpetuate their beliefs.


This happens in all spheres of human activity from religion and politics to science and education. Though, science does have the upper hand in its relative superiority in the falsification of its claims. However, it still suffers from the ailment of being the product of very small creatures with very small senses in a very big universe with an unknown amount of input. It still suffers from internal and external politics bending results this way or that, personal biases slanting impressions and selective data collection. (To name a few problems.) This is not to say that scientists simply believe whatever they want to be true. In the sciences there is a much more uniform wall of consensus and methodology then there is in politics, art or religion. (For better or for worse) So a scientist that wants to believe in an expanding earth theory probably won’t since it will get him laughed out of the academy and ruin any chances for a career in the sciences. The community has a built-in deterrent to radically different thinking.


Interestingly there is a parallel to this in religion. In my particular case, my hope for a universal reconciliation and rejection of the dominant eternal-hell doctrine has killed any leadership opportunities in my faith community. I don’t share this belief with my fellow church goers because I know the looks I’ll get and the things that will be said behind my back. Of course I’d never be dishonest, and if asked I’m happy to explain myself and my beliefs; but I can see how the issue of disagreement or shunning from a beloved institution would cause people to embrace ideas that they probably would not if they were delivered in a different context or without the peer pressure.


This effectively means that people will generally believe systems rather than individual assertions. And many are willing to sweep their complaints about individual assertions under the rug if they are part-and-parcel with a larger system that their chosen authority or group adheres to. Most Christians I know have some little disagreement with the dominant theological system that our church teaches. A little disagreement is overlooked. A challenge to a beloved part of the system like Free-will or eternal torment will get you branded as heterodox, and that’s usually ok for artists and musicians. A denial of our foundational beliefs such as the Trinity or literal resurrection of Jesus and you are a heretic. Those are the people our church is trying to save after all! But I don’t know what a person like me: who won’t reject or accept any doctrine as absolutely certain is considered.


My point is that a system may have things you hope are not true, yet you will still stick with it since overall it fulfills your deepest hopes, so you can overlook those irritants. Well, my hopes proved too powerful and broke through the systematic walls of orthodoxy.


And the ways of God, shriek out of tune. All is lost but hope


I seem to be out of tune with my Christian subculture. Out of tune with the broader culture. Out of tune with the basic human desire to Know. Yet I have deep peace and joy.
Is this epistemological stance a “way of God”? Is He bothered by my negative (I call it realistic) appraisal of our poor apprehensions skills? My out-of-tune contention is that all of our finely crafted world views, no matter how mechanically logical they are, are predicated on our basic hopes. Our worldviews are manifestations of our desires; the messy, emotional inner-workings of fallible humans. We work so hard to justify our philosophies with rational argumentation. I know I sure do. I think that’s important to keep yourself from manifesting your hope in stupid ways.


So here I am down on the floor of this valley. Most people are fluttering around on their home-spun wings grasping for that ever-elusive Certainty. I’ve stopped trying and it’s so darn peaceful on the valley floor. I know the only way I’ll ever grab onto Certainty is if there’s a chance after death, and I’m alright with that. Now that I’m not manically flapping around, startled by every wind or flash of lighting, I can start to really examine my hopes. Calmly looking at how they push and pull me. How they blind me to some things. How they open my eyes to other things.

Now that I’ve lost all that other stuff, I find that all I really need is hope.

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