best of

“Hell is an outrage on humanity. When you tell me that your Deity made you in his own image, I reply that he must have been very ugly.” -Victor Hugo

I’ve been emailing one of my Christunfrends on the subject of hell. Hell is the dark underbelly of orthodox Christian belief. Christians are, with some notable exceptions, a nice bunch. Remember the natives of the planet Krikkit? In Life, the Universe and Everything they believe in “peace, justice, morality, culture, sport, family life, and the obliteration of all other life forms.” As I’ve said before, evangelicals are sometimes a bit like that. Only instead of the obliteration of all other life forms, we have the eternal conscious torment of non-believers in Hell (annihilationism being viewed as suspiciously liberal by people like Reform).

<lj-cut> When I was a Christian, if asked, I’d have said that my non-Christian friends were going to Hell. But, like my correspondant, I’d not really faced what that meant. Most Christians consider Medieval pictures of fire and pitchforks a little passé these days, but regardless of that, Hell is conceived by Christians as the total absence of anything good. Choose your own favourite candidate for the worst thing that’s ever happened, and it’s worse than that. Forever.

The justification for an infinite punishment for a finite crime is supposedly that it’s not really a finite crime at all. God is so perfect that the smallest offence against him is as bad as the largest. Or he’s so good that nothing sinful can come into his presence. The latter explanation of the mechanics of damnation absolves God of personal involvement in sending people to Hell, as it’s logical necessity which means that nobody can join God in heaven without the aid of Jesus.

My friend, and presumably other Christians, respond to the thought that their friends are damned with gratitude that Christians are saved, and also with an increased zeal for evangelism. What’s missing from this is a question about how their friends’ fate can possibly be just. If the latter explanation is true, why does God sustain consciousness in the damned? And if he doesn’t deliberately sustain it, why are the damned conscious, as we’re told that in him we live and move and have our being?

And if the former explanation is true, why is he so goddamned tetchy? We have Christians who are supposed to be longsuffering, patient and kind, serving a God who is second to none in his sociopathic perfectionism (“Using an adaption of Anselm’s Ontological Argument, or otherwise, prove this statement about God is true. [20 marks]”). As Terry Pratchett points out in Small Gods, the prophets are better than the gods they serve.

I was attempting to understand how someone can thank God for salvation in the face of the knowledge of the fate of their loved ones. There are a couple of possible explanations. One is that Christians just haven’t thought about it very much. That was my experience. As Andrew Rilstone writes about another unpalatable evangelical belief, the fact that my nonchristunfrends were going to hell was just “one of the three impossible things you had to believe before breakfast in order to hang out with a nice group of people, sing songs and occasionally get a faith-based-buzz”.

The other explanation is somewhat darker. If a Christian honestly faces the reality of hell and thanks God anyway, my impression is that it’s rather like the Stockholm Syndrome, where people who are kidnapped, held hostage or otherwise placed under extreme duress come to love their captors and thank them for any small act of kindness (I’m not the first to have come up with this idea, of course).

S (who, ironically, usually plays God’s Advocate in these discussions 🙂 points out that the true history of the Stockholm bank robbery doesn’t reflect the Stockholm Syndrome as described, and that accusing someone of suffering from the syndrome is a convenient way of dissing your political opponents. I suppose the penultimate paragraph of this article is what I’m talking about. Call it what you like, but, as alluded to by the paragraph beginning “I trust my master”, “Normally, when people say things like ‘You are His possession, he can do whatever He likes with you’, the next sentence is ‘What is the safety word?'” (quote from Steven Carr in uk.religion.christian. I must say I rather like Gareth’s response. And don’t look so innocent, you’ve been around LiveJournal for long enough now.)

Alas, if these Christians are right, this is not a game and there’s no way out. I might be vainglorious, but I’d prefer the Miltonesque “Satan” over such a God any day.

Speaking of which, The Torygraph has a transcript of a discussion between Archbishop Rowan Williams and Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy. Williams is a counterweight to the sort of Christianity which makes me glad I left the church. Perhaps there’s hope for us all yet.

Intelligence from my logs, and from CDC‘s Special Circumstances operatives behind the enemy lines, shows a fair few CICCU people are finding the losing my religion article while out looking for CICCU information. Apart from cackling, stroking my white cat and polishing my monocle, I thought I’d say how I feel about this. I’m also linking to this from the article itself.

I wrote that page partly for catharsis, and partly because I hoped to help anyone in the same position as I was in back then. I didn’t anticipate the amount of Googlejuice I seem to have. Even so, I’m not overly concerned that the page is getting a wider audience. I do wonder what the current CICCU members who read the page take from it, though.

I imagine some of you will take it as a cautionary tale. Some of my CICCU readers will have heard speakers warning them about life after university, telling dire tales of keen CU graduates who didn’t get into a church “where the Bible is taught”, or got into a relationship with a non-Christian, and shipwrecked their faith. Neither of these things applied to me. Rather, if you want my recommendation for Christians graduating from university and wishing to avoid the slide into atheism, I must advise you to avoid thinking too much.

CICCU produced a hard, brittle faith. For those happy few who have not read Part 1A Materials Science, something hard and brittle is strong, withstanding applied force without giving very much, up to the point where enough force is applied to break it, at which point it will snap.

With hindsight, there were the beginnings of this even while I was in CICCU. If you are already wondering about biblical inerrancy, substitutionary atonement, the wrongness of homosexuality, genocide in the OT, whether your non-Christian friends really deserve to go to Hell, whether God really will answer your prayers to evangelise China or heal your auntie’s cancer, and so on, then as you are now, so once was I. And possibly, as I am now, so you shall be (you may say it won’t happen to you, but you should probably bear in mind that I did too). Therefore, at the risk of patronising you, I will say what I would have liked someone to say to me when I was a student:

If you want to prepare yourself for the graduate afterlife, cultivate the things that will be valuable there. Among these are your friends, your education (not quite the same as your academic results), and a sense of your own self. That last one is the hardest: when you’re in search of your self, pre-packed selves look like a good deal. It is very easy to go along with a crowd, especially a crowd of nice, supportive people, but do use your (assuredly excellent) brain to examine what you’re told: the most important question to ask is “How would I know if this were wrong?”

Do not listen to anyone who tells you that you and everyone else deserves to go to hell, or anyone who implies that the most important thing about a person is what they do with their genitalia. These people have exactly as much power over you as you are willing to give them.

You are at a powerful, almost mythical, place for 3 or 4 short years. They won’t, I hope, be the best years of your life (what a horrible weight that idea puts on them), but still, we don’t call them formative for nothing. Don’t get stuck within circumscribed bounds of a society whose only purpose is to gain more members. Who knows, that way, your faith may even survive after graduation 🙂

If you’re wandering in from the link in the article, feel free to comment. There’s a “leave a comment” box kicking around at the bottom of this page somewhere.

Jesus said to them, “Who do you say that I am?” They replied “You are the eschatalogical manifestation of the ground of our being, the kerygma of which we find the ultimate meaning in our interpersonal relationships.” And Jesus said “What?”

Matthew 16 and Anon.

When discussing the views of Bishop John Spong, I once said that I hoped if I ever reached a position similar to his, I’d have the courage to stop calling myself a Christian. Well, whaddya know…

But I also said that it’d be nice to have the community you get from a church, without the obsession with blood, sin, sex and death. So Don Cupitt’s book The Sea of Faith was of interest to me, because in it Cupitt advances what he calls a “non-realist” Christianity, while maintaining that this is not just humanist atheism by another name.

<lj-cut> The book opens with the text of Dover Beach, the poem by Matthew Arnold from which the title of the book comes. The tide of Christianity in this country has been going out for some time, says Cupitt. The book takes us on a tour of the history of thought about Christianity since about the time of Galileo, arguing that the “realist” concept of an external, personal God is no longer believable for people living with the discoveries of science. The special place of humans in the Biblical worldview is destroyed by advances in physics which make us realise that we are a small part of a very large universe, and by the advent of Darwinism which forces us to acknowledge that we evolved just like other animals.

Meanwhile, Biblical criticism was slowly accepted in this country, coming in from Germany. Writing in 1983, Cupitt says that

… Schweitezer’s view of historical knowledge was over-simple. He talked as if it was in principle possible to discover the real Jesus, Jesus as he really was, Jesus independent of the theologizing and mythicizing process which he underwent in the minds of his followers. But a human being does not exist independently of his or her social setting and interaction with people. Necessarily, the only Jesus the historian can in principle ever hope to reach is Jesus as seen by his contemporaries, Jesus in the context of what he meant to others; in short, a Jesus already highly theologized (for such was the age he lived in), and seen for a variety of points of view.

(By Cupitt’s own admission, he later moved into “all-out postmodernism”. I’m no literary theorist, but I think I can see the start of that here).

In the chapter “Prometheus Unbound”, Cupitt argues that believers in conventional religion are simultaneously attracted and repelled by God. God lives above stairs and we below stairs. God sees to the running of the cosmic house, and we serve him, but neither of us welcomes too much attention from the other. We know our place, and if we should attract the attention of God by our presumption, we need to do something to purge our sin and show our devotion. As I’ve said about evangelical Christianity, the essence of such faith is admitting your own helplessness, and so the very essence of sin is human pride and self will. To illustrate the point, Cupitt provides a brief history of Satan from the Morning Star which pridefully steals the march on the Sun, through to Isaiah, the Church Fathers and Milton (I suppose Philip Pullman might get a mention today!) Conventional Christianity tells us we are part of a universal version of the class system, says Cupitt. As individualist ideas become more and more important, it becomes less and less easy for most people to accept such a position.

It was about here my head started to ache as he sped through Descartes, Hegel, Kant, Marx, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Jung, Nietzsche and Wittegenstein (not for nothing was there much rehearsal of The Philosopher’s Drinking Song in Rome). I can’t possibly precis all that here, but I was interested particularly in Kierkegaard, who, according to Cupitt, would have us hold the contradictions of the spiritual life in tension, with the aim of forcing ourselves into practical action rather than striving for a settled synthesis which enables us to sit back and feel our job is done.

Where does all this end up? To Cupitt, it seems, God is just the language we use to describe something, not an external entity. And what we’re describing is something active:

The relinquishment of the old illusions about God at last allows the religious ideal to function properly. Religion is an activity: it postulates a goal and seeks to attain it. Realist theologies claim that the religious ideal is already actual… They ask no more of us than receptivity. Their day is over. From now on, your god is your star, your ideal, your aim, your hope, your goal. And that’s it.

One question that struck me was why we would bother with such philosophical gymnastics in order to be able to call our belief Christianity. Going back to my posting on Spong, why not just give up? Cupitt attempts to answer by saying that even when our material needs are met, people feel that their lives are aimless and worthless without a religion of some sort. And what would make us choose something calling itself Christianity rather than anything else? Exploring it from within and seeing that it works, he says. Cupitt expresses his hope that Nietzchean humanism and Buddhism might be combined into a Christian spirtuality. He admits there is a tightrope to be walked between this and plain humanism of the atheist variety.

At the very end of the book, Cupitt holds out the hope that, while there is an initial sense of loss with his approach, everything soon returns. Given his development, and that he later left Christian ministry (though remaining in the Church of England as a layperson), it seems a forlorn hope. It’s too easy to fall off the tightrope. While Cupitt criticises the misplaced nostalgia of some people who cling to the old ways of understanding Christianity (and it’s easy to see who he might have in mind, these days), I can’t help but wonder whether the book shows he had some similar attachment to the very idea of being a Christian. (Although it’s possible I’m reflecting my own feelings and those of other people who spent a long time in a church, rather than those of Cupitt).

The book lead to the formation of the Sea of Faith network, a group of people, some of them ordained, who identified with some of his vision. For my own part, I am right alongside his ideas in the first part of the book, on science, Biblical criticism and on the sin of pride. But the tightrope he later asks us to walk seems to go nowhere while requiring a lot of effort to keep our balance. Like the Sea of Faith members, I sometimes miss God (I would like to add another verse about missing belting out the hymns of Charles Wesley). But after reading the book one feels like telling him, as one sometimes has to do to friends who lose someone, that God’s not coming back and he should just move on. (And it sounds like he did, in fact, move on).

The book also seems a little dated in its portrayal of orthodox faith as dying out. Church attendance in this country has declined drastically over the last ten years. But, in a reversal of their fortunes in previous decades, the churches which are growing are the evangelical and charismatic churches, churches with highly orthodox theologies. I could argue that evangelicalism is hightly adapted it its environment and reproduces successfully because of that, that the success is partly because such churches provide a way to meet other nice, middle class people. I always was a bit of an armchair theologian, so maybe I’m overestimating the importance of theology to others. But I find it hard to believe that people are so indifferent to the theology of these churches that they go despite it, rather than giving at least tacit consent to it.

Perhaps the centre cannot hold, and we will all end up as either humanists or evangelicals. I’d be interested to see what Cupitt’s later books have to say, though, to see whether he found a more stable way of believing. Whatever the book’s flaws, it certainly made me think. I’d recommend it to anyone thinking about Christianity in the modern world.

So, I was at Homerton the other day and went along to a cafe type-o-thing run by the Christian Union. Ended up talking to someone we shall call Bob (disclaimer: Bob may not actually be called Bob), who asked me about my time at university. We chatted a bit. And then he threw in one of those good conversation starters: “So, was there a Christian Union at Churchill while you were there?” Zoiks.



ENTERPRISE: [deep bass rumbling noise]

A shimmering patch of space appears behind ENTERPRISE. It resolves itself into a hideously beweaponed ship, shaped somewhere between a cross and a sword.


WORF: Evangelical Alliance Bird of Pray de-cloaking off the port bow.

TROI: Sir, I'm sensing... moral outrage.

WORF: They are charging weapons! Targetting overseas students and people with low self-esteem.

PICARD: Red Alert! Raise shields, arm photon torpedoes.


<lj-cut text=”OPENING CREDITS”> I’m exaggerating, it was all very civilised. Bob was friendly and terribly apologetic (ba-da-boom!) about asking personal questions, something which no longer bothers me since I stopped being embarrassed about what’s happened to me. I explained that I was in that very CU at Churchill but left church a few years after leaving university, as I felt there wasn’t much evidence for what I believed.

Bob asked what I thought of Romans 1, where the Apostle Paul says that people are without excuse for their disbelief, since God’s nature is clearly seen in creation. I’ve come across that argument before, and my response was the same as it was back then. Writing in the 1st century AD, St Paul has no better explanation for creation than that it was God what dunnit. As science provides progressively more powerful explanations, it is no longer self-evident that there’s a creator. It’s not clear what we can learn of the creator’s nature, either, other than that God is a mathematician with an inordinate fondness for beetles. Arguments from creation mean you end up with a God of the Gaps.

We then talked about the rest of the Romans 1 passage. I’m not sure I correctly understood Bob here. He seemed to be saying that because St Paul says that there will be unbelievers, the existence of these unbelievers shows that validity of Paul’s argument. That seems to boil down to “people disagree with Paul, he predicted this, therefore he’s right”. Putting on my (somewhat tattered) evangelical hermeneutics hat, it’s not what the passage is about, either. Paul’s not using all the moral outrage at the end of chapter 1 to demonstrate his own acute observational skills, which then also allow us to trust him when God-spotting, but rather, he writes to people who already believe in God but need convincing of their own sinfulness, as chapter 2 shows.

We went on to talk about what I thought about the historical claims made by Christianity, especially the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. I said I wasn’t really sure what I thought about that, but it was a bit hard to chose between the stories of how God intersected history which are found in most theistic religions. Since Judaism is a bit of a special case to Christians, I chose Islam as my example. Bob argued that early Muslims didn’t have to die for their faith, but rather, in line with soldiers everywhere, they were keen on the idea that the other fella should die for his. But again, having people willing to die for a religion is not something special to Christianity. Throughout history, some people have been willing to die for the strangest of things.

Bob was curious to know what I thought of Jesus. I said that the Jesus of the Gospels was still an attractive figure, although he does say some odd things which make me wonder about the church’s later decision to convert Gentiles (Peter and James seem to have had similar qualms, of course). However, the God of the Old Testament seems somewhat nasty at times, especially if one is taught to regard the OT as pretty much an accurate description of what happened. At this point, either Bob mentioned C.S. Lewis’s “Mad/Bad/God” trilemma or I pre-empted it. I talked about Andrew Rilstone’s taking to task of Christian evangelists like Josh McDowell, who want to use the trilemma as a proof of Christianity. Lewis’s own ambitions are smaller: he merely uses it to argue against the watered down version of Christianity (perhaps more popular when people in this country would claim to be “C of E” for the sake of respectability) which states that Jesus was a great moral teacher, but not God. Bob owned that he was sometimes disturbed by the pat arguments of some Christian apologetics, especially those which seem intellectually dishonest.

This lead on to thinking about arguments in general. I made the not very original point that what you consider to be supporting evidence depends on where you stand to start with, and mentioned the phrase “paradigm shift” for good measure. Arguments won’t win someone to a religion (or away from it). I’m not sure what else is in the mix, but I know that despite the evangelical desire to maintain the notion of absolute truth and push messy emotions aside, eventually, feelings will have their say. As the discussion became more personal, I said that, as well as the lack of evidence, I also left because of how Christianity made me feel.

That’s why, even though Christianity seems logically inconsistent to me, I sometimes say that if I had started off somewhere less brittle, my faith might have flexed rather than broken. After all, we tolerate inconsistency elsewhere in life, building up the a selection of Swiss Army notions we find useful in certain places, a Heath Robinson mechanism where the edges don’t fit together and are joined with string and sealing wax. We might even share bits of it with friends. Though the actions of some Christians (not Bob, of course, who was unfailingly polite) draw me towards fire breathing atheism, I wouldn’t like to rule out going back to some sort of faith one day. Embarrassing U-turns are becoming my forte. But it’d have to be a form of faith which is conscious of where the edges don’t join up.

So, it’d better not hide the rough edges beneath a shiny surface of facts and faith and pat answers. It’d better not claim to be the only way to the truth. It’d better not be entirely dedicated to enlarging itself, to the power and the glory. It’d better not try to order every aspect of other people’s lives for them (however much some of them so want to be ordered), sending forth alternate waves of joy and guilt until they’re assimilated. I claim that the only moral response on encountering such a jumped up, runaway machine is to go straight to its major databanks with a very large axe and give it a reprogramming it will never forget.