The ineffable

March 5, 2010 at 12:17 pm (God, philosophy, religious experiences, science)

I said

…my experience of goodness is something I fear will disappear if it is eventually “explained away”

But really – learning to read music, learning the technicalities of intervals and harmonies, learning the mathematics of music, does not take away the magic of the musical experience. If anything, it only enhances it.

There will always be the ineffable. And no amount of science is ever going to make it anything other than ineffable. We do experience reality through the lens of our own consciousness, and science does not change that. Art and the ineffable have their own language, and it is not the language of knowledge or fact, but the language of experience.

If I abandon irrational certainty for the glorious state of knowing that I do not know… then I believe I will only be better off.

My values will drive my world view, and my world view will support and shape my values. And above all, I believe honesty with myself will pave the way to reason and empathy.


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Ehrman: messages and doctrines in the books of the NT

February 28, 2010 at 12:04 am (Christianity, God)

I have finished Bart D. Ehrman’s “Jesus, Interrupted”. It was a good read, and there were a couple of interesting points from it that I wanted to note down.

Firstly, he brought attention to the differences between the different gospels in terms of the overall message. Luke in particular has an interesting message. The passages where Jesus is being taken to be crucified show him being very calm and collected, not distressed in any way. He is presented as the perfect martyr, and the purpose of his death to the author of Luke – as expressed through the book of Acts which is written by the same author – was to make people see they had erred, they had crucified an innocent Messiah, and to prompt them to repent. The centurion at the crucifixion scene states that Jesus was innocent, driving this point home. Luke’s gospel was based on Mark’s gospel, but Luke removed the part that said Jesus was to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45), and the curtain in the Temple rips while Jesus is still alive – so not to demonstrate that his death provided a way for man and God to commune freely, but to signify that God had abandoned the Jews for crucifying their Messiah. I thought that was interesting.

Secondly, he showed contradictions between letters attributed to Paul, which are used by scholars to demonstrate that Paul didn’t write them all. For example:

“For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:5)

“having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” (Colossians 2:12)

Little things like that interest me, because I assumed Christian doctrine was all clear-cut and thought I knew exactly what it was. Now I see that it really depends which book of the New Testament you read. When I read it, I will bear this in mind and not try to force it all to cohere.

There was also some interesting stuff in the book about the development of early Christianity and all the different movements that believed different things, and how the movement was transformed from Jesus’ religion to a religion about Jesus. I’m not going to quote anything but I recommend the book to anyone interested in that.

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God and morality

February 24, 2010 at 2:50 pm (absolute goodness, Christianity, God, is religion good or bad for you?, morality, philosophy, suffering)

I guess what I’m thinking is that God doesn’t dictate morality. God may have created us with morality, but certainly did not write the moral code on the back of our hands so we’d know what to do. He wrote it in our hearts perhaps. In other words… gave us the ability to work out how best to live, and it’s up to us whether we do that.

As for what God thinks of our behaviour, or what God wants of us, I’m going with “I don’t know”. 😀 I don’t feel good about thinking that God wants to reward or punish our behaviour like some sort of cosmic adjudicator. The effects of that belief can be so ugly. I’d rather be motivated to do good based on understanding why it’s good and wise and beneficial. And we all say God wants us to question and to understand and not just follow things blindly… so why should I assume God wants any particular behaviour?

If you think that God wants you to behave a certain way, then you will want to know what that way is, and so you will sooner or later construct a moral code out of a set of dubious historical documents supposedly having something to do with God… and follow it to the letter. Even though that makes no sense. Because the fear of hell does that to people.

The thing about grace and mercy is, it takes away the need to please God. I think this is why Christians have a much less elaborate set of rules than some other religions.

And yet, there is still the belief in Christianity that God hates sin and loves righteousness, so sin is still bad, and there is the expectation that a believer will bear good fruit, and there is still the need to struggle against sin – not to earn salvation but presumably to please God… even though this is not supposed to be necessary. Which can lead to some of those ugly effects again: guilt, shame, hiding, denial, dishonesty, keeping up appearances, shallow moral thinking…

What would it be like if we didn’t believe that God was displeased by our wrongdoing? Taking grace even further so that not only is sin forgiven (and/or atoned for), but it’s not even offensive to God any more?

People who are very into judgment-based religions would say, all hell would break loose. But there are plenty of atheists with good morals… do we really need to believe that doing bad displeases God? Or can we be good without that motivation? (Does that motivation even help at all? I think we’ve all met immoral religious people…)

Honestly, I don’t know. I think the way I am going to answer that is by studying the really great people of the world and working out what motivated them. I suspect spiritual beliefs have led us to make great insights, but whether it was all motivated by pleasing God I don’t know.

Sin is behaviour which hurts somebody. If God hates sin, why did God create and put us in a world that hurts us (disasters, disease, etc)? And why is it that sometimes things that hurt us seem to do us good? Why is it that the same natural processes give rise to life and take life away? This does not seem like a fallen world. It seems like a world full of paradox. I have a horrible feeling there is no meaning behind it. I want to believe that to God, it is all good, in some way that we can only glimpse at occasionally.

Sometimes I think the world is so amazingly good, and especially humanity. But sometimes it all looks a terrible mess that we’ll never be able to fix. The world is not heaven and it is not hell, but it is both all mixed up together.

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No God But God – Reza Aslan

February 13, 2010 at 11:31 am (God, Islam, moral issues, society, why I didn't convert to Islam)

I read “No God But God” by Reza Aslan. My unusually fast reading of this book tells you how good it was! Thank you to the (several) people that recommended it. I actually haven’t read many books on the history of Islam, but this is one I would recommend to anyone, Muslims and non-Muslims; he does a very good balancing act between the two audiences, remaining ambiguous about his own views! I am curious now to read another book of his, “How To Win A Cosmic War”.

The first point that hit me in chapter 2 was an explanation for why an uncompromising monotheism was so important to Muhammad. The greedy materialism in Mecca was supported by the fact that the Ka’ba housed statues of all the gods, and so the Meccan Quraysh tribe were able to exploit the pilgrims who came from all over. He had to attack the polytheism in order to render the Ka’ba redundant.

“… the Hanif preachers may have attacked the polytheism and greed of their fellow Meccans, but they maintained a deep veneration for the Ka’ba and those in the community who acted as Keepers of the Keys. That would explain why the Hanifs appear to have been tolerated, for the most part, in Mecca, and why they never converted in great numbers to Muhammad’s movement. But as a businessman and a merchant himself, Muhammad understood what the Hanifs could not: the only way to bring about radical social and economic reform in Mecca was to overturn the religio-economic system on which the city was built; and the only way to do that was to attack the very source of the Quraysh’s wealth and prestige – the Ka’ba.” (Ch. 2)

It was a surprise to read because obviously at some point the Ka’ba became important to him again. But it makes a lot of sense.

Polytheism by nature is pluralistic and inheres religious freedom because there is always room for one more god. So I definitely think there was a downside to bringing an uncompromising monotheism. But attacking a greedy system, I can understand.

This leads to Muhammad’s persecution and eventual emigration to Yathrib (which became Medina). Then what? It never occurred to me before that the Meccans would just have let them be if they’d minded their own business and lived peacefully, but that’s exactly the picture that Aslan paints.

“By declaring Yathrib a sanctuary city, Muhammad was deliberately challenging Mecca’s religious and economic hegemony over the Peninsula. And just to make sure the Quraysh got the message, he sent his followers out into the desert to take part in the time-honored Arab tradition of caravan raiding.” (Ch. 4)

Makes it sounds positively harmless, doesn’t it? He goes on to say that it wasn’t considered stealing, and that through it, “Muhammad finally got the attention he was seeking.” This is different from Tariq Ramadan’s justification of it as retribution for the property that was stolen from them.

There was more disturbing stuff to come. By the time of Muhammad’s death, “In eastern Arabia, another man, Maslama (or Musaylama), had so successfully imitated Muhammad’s formula that he had already gathered thousands of followers in Yamama, which he had declared to be a sanctuary city.” (Ch. 5) Isn’t that fascinating? But of course, such movements had to be extinguished by the Muslims. “[Abu Bakr’s] principal achievement as Caliph was his miliatary campaigns against the “false prophets” and those tribes who had ceased paying the tithe tax…” (Ch. 5) Oh well.

Here is a really important point that I think all traditionalist Muslims should realise:

“There is a tendency to think of Islam as having been both completed and perfected at the end of Muhammad’s life. But … it would be a mistake to think of Islam in 632 C.E. as being in any way a unified systems of beliefs and practices; far from it.” (Ch. 5)

Any honest look – or even glance – at the hadith literature will tell you that nothing is clear-cut!

Authority within Islam was an interesting topic. He says:

“… the primary purpose of the Five Pillars is to assist the believer in articulating, through actions, his or her membership in the Muslim community. The ancient Kharijite ideal of the Ummah as a charismatic and divinely inspired community through which salvation is achieved has become the standard (orthodox) doctrine of the vast majority of Muslims in the world…” (Ch. 6)

That was interesting in itself, but he goes on to say this is because there is no central authority in the religion. I’m not sure I follow, because the same could be said of Protestantism, and yet salvation there is not through membership in a Protestant community. However. For Sunnis, the Caliph held political authority while the ulama – scholars – held religious authority. For Shi’as, the Imams are both of these and more, as far as I understood – kind of like Popes, but even closer to prophets than that. I didn’t know that.

I learnt a lot I didn’t know about Shi’ism.

“The Shi’ah… regard Husayn’s martyrdom as having completed the religion that Abraham initiated and Muhammad revealed to the Arabs.” (Ch. 7)

Almost like the way Jesus’s sacrifice completed the law of Moses. Atonement through sacrifice. Husayn died fighting and Jesus died not fighting, but both knew they faced death and didn’t run away from it. Hard acts to follow!

There were a lot more interesting things in the book but these were the standout things for me, things I wanted to record and/or see what your reactions are.

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Jesus’s life

February 6, 2010 at 12:19 am (Christianity, God, moral issues)

I have finished “The Historical Figure of Jesus” by E. P. Sanders, and it was very interesting and enlightening. In this post I will share what I’ve learnt about Jesus’ life and mission, saving the part about how he died for another post.

Jesus started out under John the Baptist, before embarking on his own ministry. He called 12 disciples, close followers; the number 12 was symbolic of the 12 tribes of Israel, and he said that they would judge the 12 tribes when the kingdom of God came. His main message was that the kingdom of God was coming very soon (i.e. within his own generation), and this was a common theme of the day. It seems to have referred to a dramatic intervention by God to establish a kingdom on earth ruled by God himself (the eschatological stuff), and also, referred to heaven. He taught about what the kingdom would be like. He had many followers and supporters but he expected only a few to give up everything and join him in his highly insecure existence. Even after his death, his followers continued to expect the kingdom, and gradually adjusted their expectations when it was not forthcoming.

He performed miracles, mainly healings and exorcisms, which earned him local fame. His ethics were perfectionistic, but his main emphasis was not on presenting rules but on showing mercy and compassion. He was not a social or political reformer – he believed the kingdom was coming soon and that God himself would establish it, so there was nothing people could do to bring it about.

Jesus saw himself as representing God – it is unclear whether he took on any titles like Messiah or Son of God, and it is unclear what “Son of Man” meant, which is how he sometimes described himself. It is unclear whether the Son of Man who he predicted to descend on a cloud when the kingdom came also referred to Jesus himself, but it might have. He seems to have thought of himself as “king” in some sense; he was fully aware when he rode on a donkey into Jerusalem that he was making this identification of himself (because it fulfilled scriptural prophecy). It’s worth pointing out that “Son of God” did not imply “more than human” or “divine” where it was used in the Jewish tradition; that and the virgin birth story came with the influence of Greek culture. To the Jews it always meant a person who had a close relationship with God.

Here is some more info under various headings – sorry it’s so long! If you’re pushed for time, “Ethical teaching” and “Sinners” are the most interesting parts, so skip to them. 🙂


Jesus’ miracles were mainly healings and driving out demons. He was not the only healer or exorcist, and it was not taken as a sign that Jesus was more than human, but it meant he was viewed by some as a holy man and his fame arose from it. He saw the miracles as symbolic of the kingdom being at hand.

Some of the miracle stories are probably exaggerated or even made up. The biggest example is the exorcism where demons go into swine which then jump into the sea. Mark sets this story in Gerasa and Matthew sets it in Gadara, neither of which are on the sea.  “The apocryphal gospels of later centuries sometimes depict Jesus as performing equally fantastic and grotesque miracles, some of which are even crueller than the destruction of swine, such as killing his childhood playmates and then restoring them to life, or turning them into goats. That is, sometimes Christian authors wished so strongly to present Jesus as a being able to employ supernatural power that they depicted him as being no better than a god of Greek mythology in a bad mood. For the most part, the canonical gospels are free of this tendency. Here, however, Jesus’ spiritual power over demons is so emphasized that it has resulted in an unattractive story.”

Also, the dramatic incident of feeding the multitudes seems to provoke no response from the crowds in the gospel stories, in contrast with other gospel stories where his fame spreads due to a single exorcism. You would think such dramatic miracles would result in mega-fame but this doesn’t pan out through the stories. Perhaps the feeding of the multitudes didn’t really happen. “…it could be reasoned that historically there was little response because there were few major miracles, while in the gospels there are great miracles but inexplicably little response. Possibly Jesus’ actual miracles were relatively minor and excited the public only temporarily. This is a speculative, though I think reasonable solution.”

Gentiles (non-Jews)

“All of the authors of the gospels favoured the mission to Gentiles, and they would have included all the pro-Gentile material that they could. … What is striking is that the evangelists had so few passages that pointed towards success in winning Gentiles to faith. They could cite only a few stories about Jesus’ contacts with Gentiles, and even these do not depict him as being especially warm towards them. … We must suspect that the most favourable statements about Gentiles … are Matthew’s creation. Consequently, we cannot be absolutely sure what Jesus’ own view about Gentiles was. On general grounds, I am inclined to think that he expected at least some Gentiles to turn to the God of Israel and to participate in the coming kingdom. The general grounds are these: a good number of Jews expected this to happen; Jesus was a kind and generous man. That is, the alternative to thinking that Jesus looked forward to the conversion of Gentiles would be that he expected them all to be destroyed. This is unlikely.”

Ethical teaching

Jesus had an idealistic moral perfectionism: turning the other cheek, loving the enemy, and so on. His prohibition of divorce is the most well-attested pericope. Paul modified it to permit divorce with a non-believer; Matthew has Jesus give an exception – divorce is permissible following adultery. “We can hardly think that the early Christians invented the prohibition: they found it very difficult and had to modify it.” I got the impression that while he was an ethical or moral perfectionist, this didn’t extend to ritual perfectionism, like it maybe did with the Pharisees and Essenes who were super-strict in that way – although he did follow the ritual laws.

But although he expressed these high ethical ideals: (1) He didn’t teach very much about inner thoughts – Matthew has two instances of this here and here, but that is all; most of what he taught is more about actions than inner thoughts. (2) He emphasised “compassion towards human frailty”. (3) He was not a puritan – he “came eating and drinking”. (4) He made friends with sinners (see below).

This passage shows that to Jesus, real perfection is mercy – being like God who “sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous”.

Attitude to Jewish law

Sanders proposes that Jesus does not ever oppose or “abrogate” the law, but requires a stricter code of practice (ethical perfectionism as discussed above). Even with divorce – Moses’ command to give a divorce certificate becomes unnecessary but is not declared “wrong”. In regard to this one, the law does not actually command hatred of enemies and this was not generally taught in Judaism, so that is not a law being abrogated. “Eye for eye” sets a limit for retaliation, and non-retaliation is not forbidden by law. In regard to Jesus supposedly declaring all foods clean in Mark, Matthew does not have this – and according to Sanders, what Jesus meant was that not only what goes in (food) defiles a person, but also what comes out (wrong talk).

Sanders justifies this theory by explaining that there would be more of a sense of opposition to Jesus in the gospel stories if he really advocated abandoning the law. “Had he gone around Galilee, teaching people that it was alright to work on the sabbath and to eat pork, there would have been an enormous outcry. A man who claimed to speak for God, but who taught that significant parts of God’s law were not valid? Horrendous! Nowadays, non-Jewish readers may not see how terrible this would have been.” Sanders explains that Mark is retrojecting this into Jesus’ story from the point of view of 2nd-generation Christianity, where the law has been abandoned. “Mark calmly tosses in the sentence, ‘He declared all foods clean.’ Paul’s letters crackle with the rage and hostility that his position on circumcision and food laws occasioned. Paul experienced the debate about the law firsthand. Mark (a second-generation Christian) did not, since it was largely over, nor did Jesus, since it had not yet arisen.”

Apparently it is highly unlikely that small-scale legal disputes would have caused some groups to plot to kill him as it states in Mark 3:6. In particular, no group would have considered that healing to be a transgression of the sabbath law. “In Jesus’ day and age… people did not kill one another over the sorts of issues that figure in Mark 2.1 – 3.6. The level of disagreement and argument falls well inside the parameters of debate that were accepted in Jesus’ time.” I didn’t entirely understand why the authors made it look like people were plotting to kill him over these petty legal disagreements, but I think he is saying that it was written from the point of view of the later legal disputes in early Christianity.


His association with sinners – blatant law-breakers – did actually offend people. And Sanders makes the point that he must not have been trying to reform the sinners, because that wouldn’t have offended anyone. “If Jesus had managed to persuade other customs officers to do what Zaccheus did, he would have been a local hero. But it seems that he was criticized. How can we understand this?”

Repentence as a theme in Jesus’ teaching is really only prominent in Luke and Acts (which are written by the same author). Matthew and Mark have surprisingly little about Jesus teaching repentance. John the Baptist certainly preached repentance, but it seems not to have been at the forefront of Jesus’ teaching.

“Jesus, I think, was a good deal more radical than John. Jesus thought that John’s call to repent should have been effective, but in fact it was only partially successful. His own style was in any case different; he did not repeat the Baptist’s tactics. On the contrary, he ate and drank with the wicked and told them that God especially loved them, and that the kingdom was at hand. Did he hope that they would change their ways? Probably he did. But ‘change now or be destroyed’ was not his message, it was John’s. Jesus’ was, ‘God loves you.'”

I found that particularly interesting, and really quite moving. In fact it was my favourite part of the whole book. The parable of the shepherd and the lost sheep is one of the best examples to illustrate the point: God, the shepherd, goes out to find the lost sheep and bring it home. He does not wait around for the lost sheep to return. The emphasis is on God reaching out in love and mercy, not on the sinner repenting.

“In a world that believed in God and judgement, some people nevertheless lived as if there were no God. They must have had some anxiety about this in the dark watches in the night. The message that God loves them anyway might transform their lives.”

How does this square up with the moral perfectionism? I guess maybe Jesus understood these sinners, understood why they were that way… didn’t judge them, supported them as society’s underdog, and even saw good in them. I imagine he lived in a very colourful world – not black and white.

I think there is a huge difference between on one hand, having idealistic morals but being realistic in dealing with real people (sinners); and on the other hand, having realistic morals that allow you to feel (dishonestly) that fulfilment of your obligations is within your grasp. It’s a completely different kind of realism. And I love Jesus’ realism. I love the fact that there is honesty about what real true goodness is and is not, while at the same time, people who fall short of it are not doomed but are loved despite their failings. It’s a truly astonishing balance.

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Delusions: good, bad and ugly?

January 30, 2010 at 5:45 pm (absolute goodness, God, is religion good or bad for you?, philosophy, science)

There is nothing else in life that can be compared to religion in terms of how deeply people get into it and also how subjective it is. People can’t change their minds about religion overnight. Belief is very robust. And different people can be equally deeply convinced about very different things. It’s very interesting.

In that sense, religion also seems to be very divisive. When you are so deeply into a religion that you are utterly convinced by it (and I think it is that way round), everyone else looks completely misguided, if not stupid. I can look at the Hindus in the village where little Lakshmi was born with a parasitic twin – giving her the appearance of 4 arms and 4 legs – who believe in all seriousness that she is a goddess… and I can easily think, how daft. But such is the power of our religious beliefs. They think the doctors who carried out the surgery to save her life were in the wrong. It’s all a matter of perspective. I am trying really hard not to conclude that the best or only real perspective is the materialistic one. But sometimes I feel like I’m losing at that.

One big factor in Ghazali’s religious angst was fear of hell. He was worried that he would face hell if he couldn’t recover his faith. This is something that has plagued me at times, too. But now, I really feel that I’ve liberated myself from it and that is probably why I don’t fear losing all faith any more. The idea of eternal torment as punishment for finite sins is completely unjust, and the idea that correct beliefs are required to avoid this means that life is a lottery – you will be saved if the influences on your life allow you to arrive at those beliefs. Either it is a lottery, or “God guides whom He wills” – i.e. God has favourites.

Even if our condition in the afterlife depends only on our actions in this life and not on our beliefs, it seems to me that we don’t all have the same propensity to sin or to do good. Either from birth or by conditioning, some people have an inclination to be psychopathic, or abuse children, while other people would never do those things. Maybe we could say God takes all these differences into account when judging people. But there is still the question of whether eternal punishment is ever just.

Maybe it’s true… maybe God isn’t just, or fair. Why should I assume that we can project human values onto God? But if that is the case then it would seem there’s nothing I can do to be sure I’ve secured my afterlife, since any notions I might naturally have about what I deserve can be thrown out the window. Given how man-made all religions seem to be, and how subjective the process of arriving at belief is, I can’t take it seriously any more. It seems like just another tale told to frighten children into obedience. And while I can’t rule out that it is true, I also can’t rule out that I am going to spontaneously combust in the next five minutes. Neither of these are at all rational to worry about.

There are alternative ideas within Christianity: the idea that punishment is temporary and redeeming; the idea that punishment is simply destruction and ceasing to exist. The former is actually the one I like the most because I like happy endings and I also like the idea of people getting what they deserve. But who knows? NO-ONE DOES.

I wrote this elsewhere and wanted to record it here too: At this point I am less certain about God than I have ever been. But life itself has shown me goodness, and that goodness is what I still call “God”. Learning to love goodness is what I call “redemption”. And uncertainty has paradoxically brought more clarity. What I see more than anything is that religion can tie me in knots, and make me lose sight of the fact that goodness pervades everything and that all I need to do is look for it.

I have no idea if I will continue to believe in a reality called God in a literal way. And I’m pretty sure believing in a mythological way is impossible (although I will read Aslan’s book before I decide, as I really don’t understand the concept yet). But my experience of goodness is something I fear will disappear if it is eventually “explained away”. I fear life could not be meaningful or truly good without belief in God. I will have to think about that.

I think it’s being able to reflect on the experience of consciousness that gives rise to all this existential angst. Asking these questions is wired into us. I don’t think it’s just over-active imagination, although that is part of it. This doesn’t mean any of our ideas about God are true… but it might mean we can’t live fulfilling lives without them. I worry that we are too intelligent for our own good; that we have the ability to see our delusions for what they are, even though that insight causes us to malfunction. I don’t know that any of that is the case, but it worries me that it might be.

It might just be that it is neither rational nor irrational to believe in a deeper reality. Any ultimate explanation of reality is probably inherently subjective because we can only see reality through the lens of our own consciousness.

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Reason or blind following – which is more arrogant?

January 2, 2010 at 7:56 pm (God, Islam, morality)

I have now read chapter 5 on Islam, and chapter 6 on the philosophers. Next up is a chapter on the mystics which I am looking forward to but my brain has packed up and gone home for today 🙂

Towards the end of the Islam chapter, she discusses the differences between the Traditionists and the Mutazilites. The Traditionists believed in imitating Muhammad, and believed revelation from God was needed in order for us to know right and wrong. They took things like God sitting on a throne to be literally true but “without [knowing] how” (bila kayf). They believed the Quran was uncreated (shirk much? :P) They believed in predestination rather than God’s will. On the other hand, the Mutazilities were concerned with applying reason and rationality to understand the things of God. They believed in free will and a created Quran.

I don’t think it’ll be any shock to regular readers to know that I would side with the Mutazilites here. But what took me by surprise was that Karen Armstrong seemed to be making a link between the Greek Christian thought – which in my previous post I explained appealed to me a lot – and the Traditionists. I think what she is saying is that the Traditionists let God be beyond human understanding, beyond a mere projection of human values. They revered God to the extent of mystifying everything in the religion including the Quran itself, not claiming that anything could really be understood. The rationalists could be seen as somewhat arrogant in contrast to that respect and awe for God, and I get the impression traditionalists today who follow the rules derived by scholars do see rationalists that way.

So where do I really stand on the use of reason and its limitations? I don’t know! I’m confused now.

I think in terms of morality, blind imitation is always dangerous. I cannot see any way of determining what is genuine revelation – in terms of moral injunctions – other than by applying our own reasoning. To accept moral values uncritically is just brainwashing. And sure, we all have different ideas about morality – but collectively we can spur each other towards the truth. Like when we banned slavery. That decision was not inspired by any “revelation”, but by our collective conscience.

I’d say morality is mostly relative, with perhaps some general universal principles, like “love your neighbour as yourself”. The main part that changes has to do with who our neighbour is. I feel we are necessarily moving towards viewing all of humanity as our neighbours, as Rowan Williams was saying on TV last night. That’s why we cannot tolerate conventional slavery any more. Arguably a more subtle economic slavery is still alive and well and we need to wake up and start thinking about that.

I think the nature of God may be paradoxical and beyond reason, but that is no excuse to blindly follow a religious moral code thinking that you can’t possibly understand it. Part of knowing that you don’t fully understand God surely has to be, knowing that you can’t be sure of God’s will. So yes, you shouldn’t ascribe your own moral values to God himself. That is dangerous. But equally dangerous is disengaging your brain and assuming that some religious source has accurately provided you with the answer.

Isn’t it possible for a sense of the limitations of our understanding about God to become a rigid idea in itself? Isn’t this what has happened when the Quran is viewed as uncreated and its meaning is deemed to be beyond comprehension, so that people learn to recite it reverently but not understand it, and instead exercise their powers of understanding only on hadiths – and even then, only to follow them unquestioningly? Isn’t that just as arrogant an approach as a reliance on reason?

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Idolatry is the best we can do…

December 27, 2009 at 10:59 pm (Christianity, God, Islam, myth and metaphor)

… and we ought to just be honest about it.

I have read the first two chapters of Karen Armstrong’s “A History Of God” and I am already blown away. I was actually quite alarmed when I first started reading, because it begins with the words: “In the beginning, human beings created a God…” I suspect this, and my title, will alarm some of my readers too. But please bear with me. There is a very important point to this and while it may threaten religion, it does not in any way threaten belief in God.

It’s easy for us, with our modern fully-evolved theology, to say that the concept of a single transcendent creator is totally different from pagan worship of created things. I used to think that the knowledge of a creator is primordial and natural to our consciousness, but it turns out the early ideas about God(s) even in the Hebrew tradition actually had nothing to do with creation. I still think spiritual insight is natural and inborn. But it leads people to experience and express reality in very different ways.

The God that Abraham and his immediate descendents encountered was called El and was quite different in nature from the God Moses knew, who was called Yahweh. El appeared to Abraham as a man, and wrestled with Jacob as a man. Yahweh on the other hand was perceived on Mount Sinai in the midst of what seems to be a volcanic eruption, and in a burning bush, and could not be seen directly. It is suggested in this book that these ideas or concepts or pictures of God had different origins. In a sense they were different Gods.

Also, a huge news flash to me – early Judaism was polytheistic! They believed in the existence of the other gods. The whole point of the covenant Yahweh made with Moses and his people was that they would forsake all the other gods and worship only Yahweh. This only made sense in a polytheistic context. If they didn’t believe in other gods, there would have been no need.

I always wondered how those Israelites could forsake God as soon as Moses’ back was turned and worship a golden calf. But they were just doing what came naturally to them; different Gods had different roles, for example some were warriors, and some were for fertility, and so they turned to whichever one they felt would benefit them. And they weren’t worshipping the calf itself, but using it as a symbol to invoke one of the Gods they believed in, much like how Muslims use the Kaaba. There was never any worship of overtly man-made things.

It took some time for their conception of Yahweh to evolve to the God that we know today: tawheed, a single transcendent creator.

And so the idea of one single unchanging God who has revealed himself to every prophet from Abraham onwards has been blown out of the water for me. Karen Armstrong drives this point home in the first chapter: throughout history we have always “created” our Gods, in a sense. We have expressed our sense of the divine through our human ideas. This is what I think the word “idolatry” actually means in her writing. And she says (emphasis mine):

Despite the bad press it has in the Bible, there is nothing wrong with idolatry per se: it only becomes objectionable or naive if the image of God, which has been constructed with such loving care, is confused with the ineffable reality to which it refers.

This is where it gets really interesting. She goes on to tell how in around 622 BCE, when the idea that there really is only one God was developing, King Josiah violently suppressed worship of the other Gods. At this time an ancient manuscript was discovered which basically became Deuteronomy, part of the Torah. (It is hinted that this was not so ancient actually. 😉 ) The result of this discovery was that the history of the Exodus – Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the promised land – was revised, to include all the nasty stuff about wiping out the Canaanites because they worshipped Gods other than Yahweh. This new intolerant slant, this belief in being a chosen people favoured by God, was a reflection of the ethos developing at this time under King Josiah. She says about the violent events of the time:

This wholesale destruction springs from a hatred that is rooted in buried anxiety and fear.

Isn’t that fascinating?

It makes me think of, “the lady doth protest too much”. They hated other peoples’ expression of their sense of the divine, because in the backs of their minds, they knew that their own God was just that: an expression of their own sense of the divine.

Pagan polytheism was much more tolerant because the idea of another God did not in any way threaten a person’s own God or Gods. They could all be true. In the same way, universalism such as developed in Hinduism – the concept of an impersonal overarching reality that transcends everything including the gods – was very tolerant. In the first century CE monotheism reached that level of universalism too, in Jewish thought, where theology was considered a private matter and not dictated from some authority on high. But fundamentalism – the belief that your own particular ideas about God are totally right and that other belief systems are wrong – always tends to lead to intolerance and antagonism and ultimately, holy war.

Karen Armstrong suggests that it is perhaps a pitfall of having a personal God, that such a concept lends itself to the “election” of a chosen people. People can project their own egotistical desires onto a personal God in a way that they can’t for an impersonal ultimate reality. However, the concept of a personal God also seems to stimulate social justice in a way that didn’t happen in India for example.

I never really understood why in Islam associating partners with God is the biggest sin. Now it all makes sense. And this is why I am repelled from religion time after time: I prefer to express what I don’t know about God, than to be so sure of my own beliefs in unseen, unprovable ideas that I allow myself to feel superior or more enlightened than others.

I can’t wait to read the rest of the book!

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God’s love

December 22, 2009 at 8:53 pm (Christianity, God, Islam)

It is often claimed that God is not as loving in Islam as in Christianity. It’s not so obvious, though.

The thing is, love is a word in English that is not easy to define – it has a whole range of meanings. It could even be equivalent to rahma (mercy) in Arabic, in which case God is definitely loving in Islam.

The Quran has verses which are translated as “God loves…” or “God does not love…” followed by types of people. These always made me bristle because I previously assumed God loves everybody. But the Arabic word for love used here is yuHibb, which can also be used to mean “he likes”. This is just my uneducated opinion, but it seems to me that these verses may be talking about what pleases or doesn’t please God, as opposed to an equivalent of what we mean by “love” in English.

Real love is not necessarily gushing and emotional stuff. Real love could be more like, an honest, constructive and encouraging appraisal, with a commitment to never turning one’s back. God is something like this in Islam. A sinner can always repent and be forgiven.

There is also the aspect of caring for the welfare of someone… that is part of love too. I think this type of love is only extended to believers. (See this article.) That is probably the main difference in God’s love between Islam and Christianity, because in Christianity the caring love is extended to everyone. But in Christianity it is difficult to reconcile God’s caring love for sinners with their eternal punishment in hell (if they don’t believe).

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How detailed is the truth?

November 26, 2009 at 7:26 pm (God, Unitarian)

There are many different religious beliefs, and practices, and communities, and “paths”. Yet I think everyone would agree there can only be one truth. Contradictory things cannot be true simultaneously.

The only way we differ is in how sharply we define that truth.

You could believe there are many paths to God and all are of equal value. Then you would have to take the contents of each religion with a big pinch of salt, because most religions claim only they are the right path. You would have to take a fairly detached, philosophical perspective on it all.

Or you could believe the details matter and therefore there is only one right path. You would have to be convinced on that religion being right on all points where it differs with other religions.

I am a bit schizophrenic about this. On one hand, I can’t bring myself to say only one belief system is right and the rest are doomed. But on the other, I am engrossed in picking over the details of religions to see whether they make sense and if they could be inspired by God. With the implication being that I don’t want to join a religion unless I think it is “of God”.

I suppose the split is caused by believing that we can all come to know the truth naturally (we are born muslim, we have fitrah, or in Christian terms, the law is written on our hearts) – but at the same time, believing that God sends explicit guidance. And of course I’d rather belong to a religion that consists of well-preserved guidance from God than one based on mere human intuition.

I met a woman at a Sufi workshop who had tried a number of different spiritual practices before she “found” Sufism. It just agreed with her personality, the dancing and everything, and she felt she had found her spiritual home. At the time I was gobsmacked that someone would make a decision like that based on a feeling. But now I realise that it is really a matter of confidence – confidence in oneself not to need any particular detailed guidance, and so not needing to seriously investigate religious beliefs. I’m putting words in her mouth, but I’d say she probably believes that there is no important information in any religion beyond those things that are common to all spiritual paths. So no need to worry.

I kind of wish I could be sure of that too. It would save me a lot of headaches.

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