Preservation of my Religious Hopes
I haven’t written much about my religious ideas in quite a while. I think that’s because I had my several years of cognitive dissonance where I wrestled with my inherited doctrines attempting to reconcile them with my new life experiences and increased knowledge. In other words: owning my faith. Now I’m at peace with my beliefs, mostly because I stopped believing things. I changed my epistemological stance, and now I simply say I have hopes. Well, ‘simply’ isn’t quite the right word because I’m thinking and writing in a language built upon the precepts of a different epistemology. One where common sense dictates that people know things, so our words are always bending my thoughts and writing toward a knowing-based way of communication. I have to fight all the inclinations of our shared language to explain my stance, bending it another direction. When I say “I don’t believe in God.” (which is true) everyone will say, “Ok, so you are an atheist.” But I’m not. I’m speaking from a different epistemological framework. That statement is not about God, it’s about my lack of credentials when it comes to discerning reality. I also don’t believe in physical reality, and love, and math and morals. Not because I’m crazy, but because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and can’t escape the conclusion that I’m an incredibly limited thing (I THINK I’m a thing) making my best educated guesses with a bunch of other incredibly limited things (I THINK you’re a thing) making their best educated guesses. I’ve found that the more you define your terms the less you are able to resolve or universalize anything. But I still live my life as if there’s a physical world and love, morals and math. Because I hope they do exist, (well, maybe not math… me and math don’t get along so well.) and that’s what works out best for me. I’ve already spilled far too much digital ink on my epistemological shift in previous posts, so I’m not going to go any deeper. I just need to establish this strange worldview that I have in order to fully explain this new point I want to make. To sum up: when I say I don’t believe in something, I am not saying that I think that thing does not exist. I’m only saying that I can’t justify myself believing that it does because I’ve discovered how wrong my beliefs can be.
When I survey the intellectual and spiritual journey I’m on I can’t help but notice those around me who have been on similar paths. It’s interesting to me how we are similar and how we differ. I e-know several people pretty well who went through the process I did of cognitive dissonance with our evangelical Christian heritage, digging deep into literature, learning the history of our doctrines, holy book, comparative religion, etc. Some of them flipped to atheism. I think those are the ones who didn’t let the process shake the foundations of their epistemology. So they went from KNOWING there was a God to KNOWING there’s not. Some drifted into the misty haze of spiritual-but-not-religious. These guys, like me, found the process of changing beliefs that they were so absolutely sure about to be disconcerting enough to rattle their epistemology, and so they are far more tentative when it comes to fully embracing any new or different doctrines. And I know one guy who I’m not sure if he dug as deeply as us, and stayed doctrinally pure.
I THINK…. think…. THINK, that I’m the one who went the deepest, past the culture, history, and philosophy and down into the nitty gritty of the epistemology. I’ve tried to push these ideas to their total logical conclusion, so I stayed and sussed it out the longest. (Not because I’m smarter or whatever, just because I found it more interesting than they.) In my attempt to synthesize my experiences and research into the basis of knowledge and language, I came to the conclusion that I can’t believe or know things. This meant I had to drop language about faith and knowing, and even belief, because they are not accurate to my thinking. But I also don’t see a reason to actually reject a bunch of stuff out of hand. In fact, I think a lot of my religious heritage is very good for me and my family. This is where my hope-talk comes into play. Besides hoping there is such a thing as justice and love, I HOPE there’s a benevolent creator God. and since I can’t gather any data concerning the likeliness that such a being exists, I live as though one does.
But what happens when you try to pin me down on specific doctrines ABOUT that God I hope exists? This is the point I’m trying to get to, that I think gets misunderstood by those in my religion. When I first started down this road of heterodoxy I was looking into specific doctrinal issues that didn’t make sense to me. How does a God of justice create beings that He knows will rebel and then choose to reject Him resulting in eternal torment? How does a God who is perfect display characteristics (recorded in the Bible) that are, by normal definitions of the words used, LESS mature than myself? Jealous, angry, vengeful… all things we are told not to be, and when we see other’s acting this way we see them as clearly immature. So when I found alternate doctrines to address what I could only interpret as contradictions, (and yes, I assure you I’ve read every apologetics author, talked to a couple pastors, etc about these things) I went from believing one thing about God to believing a different thing about God. But that process cracked the foundation of my justification for believing anything about anything. At some point I realized how easy it was to reinterpret things. Not just religious things in ancient texts, but everything. Morals, law, relationships, etc.
But my point is about the MOTIVE behind dropping specific doctrinal beliefs about God. To those in my tradition there is generally one motive attributed to dropping them: a desire to rebel against God. I’ve already talked about conflating what God is, with what our religious tradition says about God, so I won’t get into that distinction. My point is that after several years of letting the dust settle I have a clearer picture of my motives. I’ve always denied that I’ve ever felt rebellious towards God. In fact, I’ve ever only wanted to get closer to God. My recent revelation about myself is that what I’ve been doing is attempting to save my respect for God. I could not continue to respect the God presented in my inherited doctrines. I wasn’t rejecting those doctrines about God because I thought I knew better than those guys, or was smart enough to interpret the Bible better. I only knew I could not serve a God that is unjust, petty, or just in general less mature than I am! When I first started my serious research I went in assuming that there were good answers to my confused questions. When I found that the best answers out there didn’t satisfy me I was at a bit of a loss. I knew I WANTED to find the answers satisfying, I knew I WANTED to get closer to God, I knew I WANTED my inherited doctrines to be true. So imagine my confusion when I came up with different answers.
One of the ways I worked REALLY hard to get my traditional doctrines to work was by bending the definitions of words like Love, Justice, Mercy, Jealousy, Omnipotence, etc. I say ‘bending’ because that’s what I found it to be. Most apologists appeal to this redefinition of words based on context, along with the ‘embrace both’ paradox approach. I don’t have a philosophical problem with paradoxes, IF they are construed as based in human limitations or ignorance. I don’t believe in paradoxes in an ultimate sense, but I could be wrong. My problem with paradox as a tool in theology and apologetics is that it is of no REAL use for building a coherent and logical system IF you are hoping to establish Knowledge or belief, because any poor logic or silly contradiction can be swept away with the paradox maneuver.
So without the rhetorical tool of paradox I found that I simply had to change my hopes about God in order to preserve my relationship to God. So while it’s possible that there’s a God and He’s vengeful and jealous and feels like getting some souls to worship Him forever is totally worth billions of other souls suffering eternally, and it’s possible that that is totally justified in an ultimate sense that any person would agree with if they just knew all the facts. But the problem for ME, personally, is that I simply cannot be a moral person and serve that God. I’d have to choose one or the other. That leaves me with two choices. Assume that there is a God who matches Christian doctrines, and reject that God, or hope for a better God. (Becoming an atheist is not an option because I can’t find a way to warrant that position, and yes, I’ve read and watched lectures by all the big hitter atheists and talked through all the issues with hundreds of atheists out there.) So given my position, the answer to me is obvious. I hope that God is better than the doctrines my religious tradition has presented. I’m not making a god in my own image, because I’m not making any propositions about God. I’m simply serving that which is greater than I. And my UNDERSTANDING of the traditional Christian God is NOT greater than I, except in raw, brutal power. Again. My UNDERSTANDING. I’ve tried everything I can think of to make my understanding fit the orthodox Christian tradition. Even though I wanted to, I could not make my understanding conform.
This leads me to an ironic conclusion, which is that the hopes that took me away from orthodoxy are motivated by my desire to serve God, that is, to have “right thinking”. (the actual definition of orthodoxy) It will be doubly ironic if I end up in hell for all eternity as a result!