Monday, April 15, 2013

Sin from the other side

Some images stay with you. A woman carrying a dead child, what appeared to be a natural disaster. The woman was wailing, the child was silent. Deafening silence. The caption read something to the effect, that "even if there was a God, I would never worship him." I worry sometimes as an amateur Christian apologist; I have a smart alec streak that I have to watch in hopes that it doesn't get the better of me. I also have a tendency to think a bit more than is good for me sometimes. I've learned over the years though, that regardless of who has the best arguments, often it's how we treat people that speaks the loudest. I find I have to continually remind myself of that. There are no easy answers, and I find it so humbling, how fortunate we are in the western world, that we even have time to argue about this kind of stuff, when so many people around the world are just trying to get by. 

So I don't want to give any pat answers here, but I just want to let you in on a few things I'm thinking about, in response to the opening caption. I'm no expert on world religions and very honestly, I'm still trying to understand worldviews that counter my own, especially eastern worldviews which I find hard to understand to be quite honest. But I've heard it said that in a very general sense, you can think of most worldviews as fitting into one of three categories: all is spirit, all is matter, or monotheism. In other words, eastern worldviews, non-religious worldviews, or the three Abrahamic faiths. In eastern religions, often the overarching belief tends to be that all is one, the universe and everything in it has a spark of the ultimate divine reality. Accordingly, we as people are part of that universal divinity and as such are moving, along with everything else towards an integrated universal consciousness. All apparent separation of life or nature is seen as an illusion. On this view though, in the face of tragedy or suffering the question becomes, how do you draw a distinction between right and wrong, or good and evil, if all is one? Well, apparently you don't. I have a hard time believing that frankly, but apparently that's an accurate synopsis of eastern faiths in that regard, that there is no ultimate distinction between good and evil. The kicker for me personally that illustrated this   (as mentioned in the videos on eastern religions below, I believe it's in the last five minutes of the first video), was in hearing a reference to a question that was put to a Buddhist monk about tolerance and Hitler. Namely, how do you tolerate Hitler? The response given by the monk was apparently, after stating that evil was a Christian concept, that Hitler was "silly." That's right, not evil, as we in the west commonly assume, millions upon millions of dead people later, that Hitler was "silly." (sigh). I can't wrap my head around that.

On the flip side of eastern worldviews, to the non-religious, all reality is material. But on this view, again, if all there is is the material world, then it's the same problem upside down isn't it? How can raw materials, carbon, water, fire, rain, the periodic table at the end of the day, be right or wrong? Matter just is, it's elemental, reacting with the natural environment based on it's composition, but it's certainly not motivated to join a twelve step recovery program for the ethically challenged. Regardless of whether stuff is conscious or not, or of levels of consciousness, it still comes down to the lowest common denominator, stuff, doesn't it? And why should stuff care, or think accurately about other stuff? Consciousness would delineate to more random base haphazard stuff, including our sense of right and wrong, would be illusory on a purely naturalistic deterministic worldview. How can plain ol' material stuff be good or bad, or make necessarily accurate decisions about anything that -matters? Why would it matter? It all ends up the same, oblivion in space. Sorry if I'm getting y'all depressed. 

This is the part where "dust in the wind" starts playing in my head, complete with violins. But there is one other family of worldviews that says that there is a personal agency in all of this. Monotheism would assert that both the material and the spiritual exist, that creation is good, but that God is separate from It's creation. Morality and purpose would then be grounded in this eternal fixed point of reference, and would therefore give our lives objective meaning, specifically because there's an intelligent mind that started it all, purposefully. So where am I going with all this? See, I've noticed this sort of contradiction for some time. People who while dismissing Christianity, use a Judeo-Christian cultural sense of morality to condemn Christianity in favor of all is spirit, or all is matter. Do you see it?  Let's return to my opening image. On a materialistic worldview, why is an earthquake wrong? Why is death wrong?  It happens all the time, it's part of the naturalistic observable order of things. There's nothing out of the ordinary about death. Things live, things die.What's wrong with that? But when I talk to secular minded people, I inevitably hear about colonialism or the crusades, can't forget those inquisitions, and while they dismiss Christianity, they embrace anything eastern or materialistic without question, while clinging to a western Judeo-Christian sense of moral justice and rationality. (sigh). But why would Imperialism be wrong on an eastern worldview, or a materialistic worldview in the first place, that's the question that never gets asked. It's the natural evolution of things, the strong get stronger. Or, it's Shiva at work or it's Karma, the universe bringing it all back to right and wrong together at last, yin and yang, a balancing of opposites.
It seems in the last number of months there's been a number of prominent stories about rape in the news, both domestically and internationally. I don't want to trivialize anyone's personal beliefs here, please forgive me if that's your impression, but may I honestly ask, if you're a woman who has recently been raped in an eastern culture, is it your fault?  It's a serious question. Am I misunderstanding something here?  If suffering is caused by karma, and we're all paying our debts from previous lifetimes, how is that different from blaming the victim? What other option is there on an eastern worldview? The only thing I can think of would be to say, well the guy will get what's coming to him too, but what comfort is that in the present when it's assumed that you must have done something to deserve it? But more than that, if there is no ultimate right or wrong in the end, but both are interdependent and balance out, then why would rape or any other perceived transgression be intrinsically wrong in the first place? You might also ask, why would karma be necessary even, if  there is no ultimate  right or wrong, on an eastern worldview. Or, on a naturalistic worldview, if rape resulted in the perpetrator's very strong genes getting passed on, then where is the difference between ends, and means to an end on a naturalistic worldview? Most importantly, why would people necessarily be ends in themselves?

But just so you know, I'm not interested in making Christians or traditionally Christian societies look better than anyone else, because we're not. The other day I stumbled on a site that stated a list of Christian atrocities throughout history, or at least started to, but then the list ended, because the writer said she was sick to her stomach. Could some of that have been more complex than she was seeing? Maybe. I'm inclined to think that the politics and economics of greed and thirst for power is more likely to be at work than necessarily Christian ideas historically, because I think that if people were really reflecting on the life or teachings or Jesus, they'd have a harder time justifying their actions. Yet, it's hard to excuse quotes from "puritan" ministers about the death of thousands of aboriginals due to smallpox as divine providence,"a giving over of the land by a divine hand,"or the thousands following thousands of Jews massacred, again and again. Massacred! It doesn't make me proud. So there are reasons, surely there are, for people being bitter with the church. Or the current sex abuse scandals, where's infallible Papal authority when you need it? It's not like we have to go back very far is it? That doesn't make me proud either. Or the heartache that follows aboriginal communities, family breakdown from family breakdown, a bottle in hand because at least it's something, but I can relate to that one at least on a human level. 

So what do you do at the end of the day, when you know that some things aren't intellectual as much as they are experience? A lot of people have been hurt, both in and by the church. And though I argue, at the end of the day I pray and ask for forgiveness. When I know I'm not being kind enough, caring enough, giving enough, when I see that sarcasm creeping in, when I'm not nearly as patient with my kids as I should be...It's been said that as much as people discount the Christian doctrine of the sinfulness of human beings, that's it's probably the theological concept that's the most empirically verifiable. Could it be that despite the failings of the church historically, despite our personal failings as Christians, that there really is something to this idea of looking inward, of personal responsibility, of turning in the other direction, of breaking down and freely admitting our desperate need for redemption.

In concluding, I thought this was interesting. It's a graph showing degrees of corruption around the world. I had been curious to check out such a graph to see how historically Judeo-Christian countries fared compared to other parts of the world. It appeared to me at first glance that there seems to be some truth to my thought that we in the west would have lower percentages of corruption, but my second thought was immediately that it's not at all simple. Corruption seems to be a big problem in many parts of the world. But it does make me wonder if people need to be told, "thou shalt not." Otherwise, it's very easy to pale in shades of grey, might being right, victims being guilty, and reason leading to rationalization. Contrary to this idea that the concept of sin as a degradation of human beings, quite arguably it represents accountability and standards of conduct that make for a more livable society, a more human way to live, to breathe, to travel and to be.

Feel free to share your thoughts,

take care,

M.A. Harvey

And here's a couple of lectures as well, that do a much more thorough job of explaining the contrast of ideas that I was outlining, if anyone's interested.


Eastern influenced:

Comparing eastern and western religions (chart):

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