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March 14, 2007


Batocchio: thanks. I have felt this way since I was a Christian, and (when I was trying to work out for myself what that meant, in the more or less complete absence of actual people I could ask), assumed that all Christians felt this way. Imagine my surprise.

The time it really hit me was when I was in college, and there was a group of fundamentalists that I knew, one of whose members decided that it was God's will that two others should marry. Iirc, they didn't like each other that much, but the one who imagined that he had access to God's specific will -- not just to the Bible, which is general, but to His will about these two people's matrimonial plans -- convinced the two of them that it was, in fact, God's will. I believe they did marry, though I have no idea how it worked out.

Anyways, I remember being just dumbfounded, as a Christian who had always found it pretty difficult to figure out what God wanted me to do, at this guy's confidence about it. And I thought: I sure hope he's right.

" and I completely accepted that view. As I saw it (when I was a teenager), there were two main advantages of being a Christian: first, it's easier to do the right thing when you have the right beliefs about why it's right, and when you can call on God's assistance; and second, if you were an atheist who found herself, after death, in the position of the person in that passage, one of the things you'd bitterly regret was that you had missed all that time during which you could have known and worshipped God. Whereas if you were Christian, you could get started right now."--hilzoy

I'm partial to Lewis's "heresy" myself. So were the theologians at Vatican II, if I understand correctly, so even though I'm not Catholic it's nice to know that the oldest Christian body agreed with Lewis about this. (Or anyway, I think so).

But a fair number of Christians I've known don't think this way--they think that if non-Christians can get in, so to speak, then what's the point? Sort of the wrong attitude, not that I'm going to mount too far up on my high horse about that, having numerous bad attitudes of my own to worry about.

In reply to Anderson about people who are privately humble and politically arrogant, all I can say is that I think I know people like this. Friends of mine, who seem like good Christians to me, humble and not arrogant in their private lives, who on the other hand buy into the whole crusader mentality regarding the war on terror. Since C.S. Lewis is everyone's favorite authority in this thread, he alludes to people like this--somewhere in the Screwtape Letters Screwtape is moaning over the deplorable (from the demonic viewpoint) people who loudly proclaim that death is too good for the Germans (this was in WWII) and who then do the best they can to tend to a wounded German pilot who comes parachuting down in their backyard. Having said that, I'm not sure that all the current-day cheerleaders for the war on terror would necessarily be that saintly.

Such a wide and well-paved road it is, this path from "doing" to "paying for", and it starts in such a reasonable place: salvation by works. And yet ... and yet ... it takes you to such an ugly place, where rich people steal from the poor, donate a part of it to build a fancy church and shore up their afterlife, then use the rest to support their life here on earth. Those not rich or sociopathic enough had to play by much more stringent rules.

But Amos, is giving to charity not doing good works? Is building a fancy church really the same thing?

If I want to feed the hungry I can volunteer to work in a soup kitchen for a day, or I can donate a day's pay to the kitchen. If the latter ends up feeding more people why is it to be condemned?

I think the problem is the definition of good works. If building monuments does not count, then what difference if I build them by hand or pay craftsmen to do it? I think the "good works" notion ought not be seen as a set of discrete acts, but as way of life. Stealing from the poor counts against you. Living a life of generosity, honesty, good will, etc. matters.

In a comprehensible religious system these ought, in my opinion, count for more than believing specific theological ideas propositions.

"In contrast, I don't know of any religious tradition that says upfront, 'we can't know exactly what God is or wants, but here's a workable approximation until something better comes along.'"

It has been a long time, but isn't that pretty close to what is going on in "Mere Christianity"?

But for MOST people, the way they 'know' both is exactly the same--people they trust tell them what it is.
Posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw | March 15, 2007 at 11:41 AM

Epistemologically, I’m with Sebastian.

The problem with American Christianity, more specifically American Protestantism (Evangelical or Calvinists) and new comers (Roman Catholic) is its fusion of Right-Wing Nationalism/Progressive Empire and theology.

My research shows that Protestants across the world really appreciate American Protestant theologians but despise the fusion of American Empire and "The Word and Son Of God." American Protestants tend to forget the world of Christianity outside of their tribe, history and political theories.

"American Protestants tend to forget the world of Christianity outside of their tribe, history and political theories. "

Yep, though I don't know what fraction of American Protestants fall into that category. Quite a few, I think.

Amos Newcombe: The Protestant way around this was to cut it off at the beginning, and deny salvation by works.

Which is itself a wide and well-paved road, too, potentially leading to a carte blanche for various depravities after being washed in the blood of the lamb.

[Or, as I like to call it: pressing the magic Jesus Button.]

And that's the issue: given these two alternatives -- which may or may not be a false dichotomy, but let's stick to the established paradigm -- I would much rather that people did good things than believe good things. I don't care if you have Jesus in your heart if you eviscerate programs for the poor or try to roll back the Enlightenment; neither do I care if you have Allah, or Buddha, or Satan in your heart if your actions result in a freer, more prosperous world. Theologically, IMO as long as you try to make the world a better place, the quality of your faith -- in God, in Jesus, in the Divine -- is irrelevant.

it takes you to such an ugly place, where rich people steal from the poor, donate a part of it to build a fancy church and shore up their afterlife, then use the rest to support their life here on earth.

Well yes. Salvation by works != salvation by money, as I said above. OTOH, the only part of that that I find objectionable is the stealing from the poor; if a rich person makes money via legitimate enterprise and then choose to donate some -- key point in the "works" portion of salvation, both that there is a donation and that it is non-trivial -- and support their life with the rest, rock on.

Batacchio: Also, despite their more literalist bent toward the Bible, they seem to ignore much of its content to a striking degree.

Slacktivist has extensive writings on the (copious) failings of Biblical "literalism".

Anderson: What Christian claims an encyclopedic knowledge of what God wants on all topics? (Though this Protestant would snarkily suggest that the Roman Catholics come rather close to this ....)

Actually, my experience with the religious broadcasting around these parts suggests that, while none would actually admit it, there are many who believe exactly that. Or at least, encyclopedic knowledge of what God wants on anything germane to them.

In defense of Sola Fide (and the other “solas: Sola Scriptura, Soli Deo Gloria, Solo Christo, Sola Gratia). It liberates one from the layers of bureaucracies religion (Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox) can place on one’s understanding of God…and then deliver us into purer Anglo bureaucracies.

If we're still allowed to quote rock music, I'm partial to Randy Newman:

Cain slew Abel Seth knew not why
For if the children of Israel were to multiply
Why must any of the children die?
So he asked the Lord
And the Lord said:

"Man means nothing he means less to me
than the lowiliest cactus flower
or the humblest yucca tree
he chases round this desert
cause he thinks that's where i'll be
that's why i love mankind

I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee
from the squalor and the filth and the misery
How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me
That's why i love mankind"

The Christians and the Jews were having a jamboree
The Buddhists and the Hindus joined on satellite TV
They picked their four greatest priests
And they began to speak
They said "Lord the plague is on the world
Lord no man is free
The temples that we built to you
Have tumbled into the sea
Lord, if you won't take care of us
Won't you please please let us be?"

And the Lord said
And the Lord said

"I burn down your cities--how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You must all be crazy to put your faith in me
That's why i love mankind
You really need me
That's why i love mankind"

"In contrast, I don't know of any religious tradition that says upfront, 'we can't know exactly what God is or wants, but here's a workable approximation until something better comes along.'"
The Baha'i would fit the bill. If I understand their teachings correctly, sentient beings receive only as much of the divine "plan" as they can cope with at their stage of development. Thus all current religions are only transient (transitory?) and will be replaced by something more refined when we are ready for it (and so forth).

Concerning: Salvation by money

Gospel according to Luke, Chapter 21, 1-4
21:1 And he looked up, and saw the rich men casting their gifts into the treasury.
21:2 And he saw also a certain poor widow casting in thither two mites.
21:3 And he said, Of a truth I say unto you, that this poor widow hath cast in more than they all:
21:4 For all these have of their abundance cast in unto the offerings of God: but she of her penury hath cast in all the living that she had.

A billionaire spending millions for charity can of course do more good than the average person but the personal merit of someone who has barely enough for him/herself and still puts efforts into helping others may well be greater. And as far as I understand the bible there is a great difference whether you do good works with the sole/main purpose of achieving salvation (or just a good conscience) or doing them because it is the right thing to do. The former will have their award in this world, the latter in the next.
As I understand Luther, good works are just evidence (not proof) of salvation, i.e. a saved person will do them to his/her ability because that's natural for one to do.
I consider myself a "Lutheran agnostic".

Posted by: Anarch | March 15, 2007 at 06:29 PM

Thanks for the tip! (Also, to respond to one of your earlier comments, it's been a while since I read Euthyphro. Maybe time to break it out.) ;-)

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