Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Or else, what?

I remember one time I was walking across campus with a friend, we were having a chat about what it would be like to be an atheist. As we turned a corner around the fountain, I said that I'd commit suicide; my friend agreed that he probably would, too, either that, or he'd be an unrestrained hedonist.

A few years later, I was starting to doubt earnestly. Doubt didn't sound, in my head, like I would have expected it to. In the Commons, by Pete's Arena, the crappy pizza place, I ran into a friend, and he asked me how I was doing. Always loath to give a one-word answer to any question, I said, "I think that I'm becoming an atheist." We chatted a little, then I said, "Well, I'm going to go burn down a church or something," and we laughed a little. And I guess that was funny because it wasn't true, I didn't want to burn down a church, but I didn't know how I was supposed to feel. After that I got supper.

We could go about knowing whether God exists by looking at common knowledge, or reason, or history, or spiritual experiences, or science, or some combination of these; these are all information. Regardless of the personal consequences of believing that God exists, say, salvation or damnation, these ideas about what my belief or non-belief would bring me aren't evidence about whether God is real.

Non-belief carries the threat of another sort of damnation, a death of the mind, in which my capacity to know God could by shut off by my doubting, my perceptions would be confused, maybe my heart would be hardened, as was Pharaoh's in Exodus. Or, maybe my doubts were dishonest in the first place, because I didn't want to submit to God's rules, or tradition, or to the idea of a spiritual entity bigger than people. Any of these might be the case, but there is no way to account for them in my thought process.

Apologists like Ravi Zacharias insist that we can't have a real morality without God, so it is imperative that we believe in God. Even if the nonexistence of God meant moral nihilism, that's no evidence that God is real. Presuppositional thinkers like Cornelius Van Til, Gordon Haddon Clark, and Francis Schaeffer insist that any worldview that doesn't presume the truth of the Bible and the existence of a triune God, any such worldview would be either inconsistent or futile. Schaeffer said, "If the unsaved man was consistent he would be an atheist in religion, an irrationalist in philosophy (including a complete uncertainty concerning 'natural laws'), and completely a-moral in the widest sense." Even if Schaeffer were correct about the implications of a non-Christian worldview, that wouldn't mean that it's logical to presume that God exists; it's not logical to assume that God exists just for the sake of making one's system of thought work smoothly. These arguments don't persuade non-Christians, they only make religious people more stubbornly religious.

I'm not unique in having confusions about God; knowing God is difficult for all human beings. There isn't a majority opinion, among humans, about what God is like. No matter who you are, most humans disagree with you about most important things about God: clearly, human beings aren't consistently good at knowing God. Maybe our minds are too small to comprehend God. Maybe God can only be known on his own terms, when he sends a sign or when he opens one's heart to receive him. There are many ways to impugn human perceptions of God. When figuring out whether God exists, threat of damnation, hope for salvation, suspicion of one's own cognition, none of these are evidence about God, regardless of how they weigh on one's mind.

Maybe doubt is a sin. However, the rule, "Believe in God, or else!" is meaningless without something following the "or else!" If God doesn't exist, there is no punishment for doubt. If God does exist, but would punish people for doubting that he does exist, this punishment would be unjust.

If doubt is a sin, I couldn't know if God exists. I might refrain from considering whether God might not be real; I might not pick up books by atheists, I might avoid non-believing friends, or at least, avoid listening to them with the idea that I might want to agree with them. I would avoid asking questions like, "What would the universe be like if God wasn't real?" or "If God disappeared all of a sudden, how would we notice?", or I might ask those questions, and be satisfied with weak answers. I might make my mind an aluminum-foil-lined house, impervious to secular influence, yet there would be a voice between my ears that would ask me if I knew that God is real, or if I was just too afraid to ask. I would sit in a rocking chair in this house, wondering if I knew that God is real, but afraid that I lied to myself saying that he is.

To this idea of, "Believe in God, or else!" it is sensible to respond, "Or else, what?" If God isn't real, there is no loss. If God is real and loving and good and worth having over for tea, God wouldn't punish me for doubting.

So, there's this distinction between evidence that God exists, and feelings and hopes and fears that one has about the idea of God, and this distinction is relevant, logically. Disentangling these two categories is slow, painful, and difficult, though.

The idea that God is infinite makes thinking about God a quagmire, because one can't be unbiased. I want an iPad, and I saw that I can enter a drawing to get one. It would be so useful, I could read articles on it, I wouldn't have to print things out on paper, I probably print about a hundred pages a week. There's a neat game where you tilt the iPad and a marble rolls around on it past obstacles. I was thinking about which carrying case I should get for the iPad when I realized that the odds of me winning the iPad are very low. Anyway, I was afraid that, if God didn't exist, there would be no way to have meaning or morality in life, everything would feel hollow. If God were real, experiencing his perfect love would be worth forgoing everything else. I wanted to believe in God so much that I was afraid that God isn't real and that I'm just biased to think that he is.

I recently had to buy a car. I didn't have any special knowledge on how to buy a car. There are a lot of uncertainties when buying a car, like how safe it is, how much it will cost to repair it when it breaks down, and how likely it is to break down, and how long it will last before it breaks down completely and must be scrapped. These are probably the most important things about a car, but I don't know how to know them, so I picked out my car based on price and how good its cup holders are and whether I can plug my iPod into it.

I can't think of any story in the Bible that rides on a person's belief or non-belief that God exists; what matters is how people deal with God, whether they want to be on his team. When the Israelites approached Jericho, the people of Jericho were not atheists. The people of Jericho were afraid precisely because they thought that the God of the Israelites does exist‚ and would destroy them like Og and Sihon of the Amorites. Rahab was different from everyone else in Jericho, not because she believed that God exists, but because she believed in him, she put her trust in him, she wanted to join his side, and she was rewarded for this faith.

In the Bible, the word "believe" is used in two ways, meaning either to suppose as true, or to rely and trust upon. In "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household" (Acts 16:31) "believe" means rely on. James makes it clear that these two meanings are distinct, "You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder." (James 2:19). Thinking that God is real isn't what saves one, so mere doubt can't damn one, either. The people of Nazareth doubt Jesus (e.g., Mark 6:1-6), they have no faith, but this isn't a show of equanimous non-belief, "they took offense at him" because "prophets are not without honor, except in their home town". Similarly, the Pharisees seem to doubt Jesus, but they're not intellectually considering him, they're casting aspersions on him because he's a threat to their power structure.

Yet, religious people treat honest doubt like it's a sickness or a problem or a sin; this does more to ensure conformity among believers than to reassure doubters.

I was compulsively ruminating on contradictory ideas, that non-belief in God is empty and void, and that belief in God is a desperate fantasy. This psychological tension didn't enlighten me about God. I decided to live in a way that would be as meaningful as possible if God isn't real, and in a way that would let me find and relate to God if God is real. When I didn't think that God exists, I still tried to have faith in him, to rely on him, and not myself. By trying to minimize the consequences of my vacillating belief that God exists, I was able to think a little more clearly. Was God hiding from me because I was sinful? Was I mistaken about God not existing? How could I have meaning? How could I know what is right to do? I still had questions like these; even though I knew they didn't show me God, I anguished over them.


A previous post, The God I want to believe in, has some ideas related to this essay.

"I want God to be real, and I want to relate to him. I look for God carefully, but I don't see him. Not at all that I think that I'm saved by any of my own virtues, but if God would damn me for not believing that he exists when that's not what I have honestly seen or experienced, I don't find that God to be worth bothering with."

There is another important meaning that the phrase "Or else, what?" has for me. Normative statements, statements about what ought to be, rules of morality, for example, are meaningless on their own. "You shouldn't paint graffiti on the overpass." isn't meaningful;

  • "You shouldn't paint graffiti on the overpass, or else people will become sad from the ugliness of the overpass."
  • "You shouldn't paint graffiti on the overpass, or else God will be angry at you."
  • "You shouldn't paint graffiti on the overpass, or else you'll regret it later."
  • "You shouldn't paint graffiti on the overpass, or else you might get arrested."

are meaningful statements. Thinking about norms, things like values and morality and purpose and meaning, by posing them this way, has been helpful for me as I've tried to make decisions as a non-theist.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Icon veneration

I think that icon veneration, as practiced and taught by the Orthodox and Catholic churches, is idolatry, it's a violation of the second commandment. Let's discuss in the comments.

Graven images

It's pretty common for inquirers into Orthodoxy to be troubled by icon veneration, it seems like idolatry to us. I heard some statements about the practice that provided color, like, "Some people kiss photographs of loved ones; they don't love the photograph, but their affection applies to the person in the picture."

The second commandment says that making and bowing before images is wrong. It is a clear condemnation of practices observed in the cultures around ancient Israel. What made Orthodox icon veneration different from idolatry? What does the second commandment mean?

The explanation that I got was that icon veneration is different from idol worship because in idol worship, the actual idol is being worshipped, while with icon veneration, the icon is just a focus, and that honor passes to the prototype through the icon. That's not true, though: this distinction between honoring an object and worshipping a god, this distinction is also made in many pagan religions. It's not like people were commonly trying to confound an image with its prototype. If the second commandment were limited to making this distinction, it would be near-irrelevant. What could the second commandment mean?

In Chemosh is a god not an idol I write about this in more detail. This quote is relevant:

In Bible times, worshippers of Ba'al Hadad would make sacrifices in front of bull statues. No one ever thought that Ba'al Hadad was actually a bull; he obviously looks like a human being. However, everyone knew that Ba'al Hadad was powerful, and so are bulls, so by sacrificing to a bull statue, one might hope to manipulate Ba'al Hadad to access his power for one's own purposes.

St John of Damascus wrote a famous defense of icon veneration, but he was mostly writing to address iconoclasts, people who thought we should make no images at all. (The second commandment obviously doesn't mean that we should have no images, because the priestly code has many instructions about making images.) He makes several arguments, but the one I find notable is that he says that honor ought to be paid to icons, not worship, so worshipping an icon would be wrong, but honoring an icon of Jesus would bring worship to Jesus himself. St John emphasizes that worship does not belong to icons, only honor.

I thought that this explanation was interesting because the difference between sin and piety would be a matter of degree, honor an icon, but don't worship it. However, it sounded to me just like what one would say to justify icon worship if one thought icons shouldn't be worshipped, but one wanted to worship them anyway. Orthodox Christians light candles for icons, they wave incense before them, they bow before icons, and heathens treat idols in this same way. There isn't much that non-Christians do before idols that Orthodox Christians don't do before icons. The difference between sin and piety would have to be one of subtle internal spiritual orientation. I wouldn't expect myself to have this right orientation consistently enough for icon veneration to be safe. Does the second commandment speak to having a certain internal spiritual orientation? How is it possible to violate the second commandment? What does the second commandment mean, anyway?

I would wake up in the middle of the night, startled and sweating, and I would lie back down and try to sleep and I couldn't. I had bad dreams about the seventh ecumenical council, the one that affirmed icon veneration. In my dream, the bishops at the Seventh Ecumenical Council conspired to teach icon veneration, even though it's wrong. When I woke up, I didn't know if I should trust myself or the bishops. All of my reason told me that icon veneration is idolatry in disguise, but I also didn't want to trust my intuition. The bishops had studied theology, practiced intense spiritual disciplines, and had the support of the laity. Would you sooner listen to them or to me? On the other hand, Chico Marx said, "Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?" I felt insubordinate not trusting these wise people, affirmed by the church, with the weight of scholarship and diligent spiritual practice behind them. Yet, I myself couldn't believe that icon veneration is what God wants.

I was comparing two stories about how icon veneration got to be accepted by the church. In the first story, icon veneration was always accepted by the church, just never mentioned in the Bible because it was so normal. However, this practice was uniformly supported by the tradition going back to the apostles; Luke, the gospel writer, painted icons also. The iconoclastic controversy was more about cultural responses to Islam than about any theological development. Icon veneration felt funny to me, but that was just because the Protestant Reformation left a strange aftertaste. I could trust that icon veneration is correct; it was accepted by the entire identifiable church at the end of the eighth century. If I could trust God to speak to me about little things, I could trust God to be clear to the whole church about something important.

The other story was that icon veneration is idolatry. It was alien to the apostles. Icon veneration was idolatry repackaged, brought into Christianity by converts keeping old practices, or Christians adopting non-Christian practices to be more accessible to outsiders. Culture can shift to make many wrong things seem acceptable, and Christian culture isn't exempt from this. Eventually, the whole church endorsed a wrong practice because the church is made out of human beings who are frail and prone to err.

If I believed the first story, I would have become Orthodox. It's internally consistent, but not the story I would expect if God were to intend icon veneration. It's suspicious that there's no mention of icon veneration being encouraged in the New Testament, there's minimal mention of the practice before the first Nicene council. Icon veneration seems so similar to idolatry, but the distinction between the two is not made clear in the scripture or in the writing of the early church fathers. If God really did intend icon veneration, I would expect him to assure me of this through scripture and consistent witness of leaders in the church, not just because a lot of people venerated icons for a long time. But if the second story were true, what would imply about the church, myself, and God?

I started to look into Orthodoxy because I had given up on scripturalism and was looking for something more decisive. Scripture alone led to divergent interpretations, and I wanted a sound way to know what God wants that isn't just someone's opinion—opinions are cheap. I wasn't happy with just listening to my own opinion, either; if I can't rest with another person's opinions, I can't rest with my own. I didn't think that scripture was bad or wrong, it's just that using scripture alone led to inconsistent readings of the Bible about important things. On the other hand, traditionalism, in Orthodoxy, and in Catholicism, too, led to enforcement of wrong practices. I would like to hold a compromise position, but a person who believes the tradition except for when he doesn't isn't halfway in the middle of the two approaches, he's a well-read scripturalist.

I wanted a good understanding of revelation. I posed this in terms of knowing doctrine. Revelation isn't just about logic and information, it's about function. I don't care if proper doctrine can be deduced from scripture alone because scripture hasn't been consistently understood. I'm more concerned with how well people actually know God than I am about a theory of revelation, of how they ought to go about knowing God. I think it was helpful for me to think in terms of doctrine about important, concrete things, like who should be baptized, how should church government be structured, and whether icons should be venerated.

I didn't care so much about these issues of doctrine, though, as I did about the world and myself. I didn't learn until I was 17 that a fifth of the world's population is malnourished. Poor people aren't just a few people in my neighborhood who need some canned goods, no, most human beings live in a state of physical hardship and suffering that I had never been close to being forced into. Also, I believed that to not know Jesus is to spend eternity in torment, and, because most humans aren't Christians, pain forever was what they would face, barring an intervention. On campus, I was seeing evangelism take no effect; I could count on one hand the number of conversions I saw in the college fellowship I was in for over five years.

I had to look to find a church where poverty and justice were spoken about regularly from the pulpit, and even then, it's rare for me to hear a Christian teacher speak with penitence for the role that Christians have played in injustice. Christians ought to teach with urgency and fear and hope about suffering and damnation that are imminent for most people, providing concrete advice on how to respond radically to crisis. I didn't just want a good understanding of revelation, I wanted to see what God was up to and know what he wanted me to do to help.

Advocates of religious pluralism often make reference to the story of the blind men and the elephant. One might feel the side of the elephant and say that an elephant is like a wall. Another might feel its tail and say that it's like a rope. Another might feel its ear and say it's floppy. They're all right, they're just talking about different aspects of the elephant. This is a critically incomplete analogy, because elephants can't talk. Is God silent, only allowing us to know him by groping for him in the dark?

There are different kinds of disagreements. There are differences of perspective or emphasis or phrasing, and then there are flat contradictions: icons ought to be venerated or they ought not, the church should be led by bishops or the Pope or a number of elders or by a congregational vote, babies ought or ought not be baptized.

Idolatry is a sin because people use idols to manipulate and misrepresent God. I started seeing other things that Christians do as idolatrous. People make up rules and say that God commands them—this is idolatrous. People cause harm to people and say that this is good because God wills it—this is idolatrous. People bargain with God, or they try to pray with a special technique, or they butter-up God with compliments that they don't mean, hoping to get what they want—this is idolatry. People say that scripture provides sufficient knowledge for salvation, but God didn't say that, the Bible didn't say that about itself, even; this is idolatry. When people give tradition the weight of divine revelation, this is idolatry, too.

The second commandment forbids making and bowing before graven images, and the Orthodox and the Catholics and anyone else who uses art as a proxy for God are guilty of this. We should be surprised if it weren't the case that many Christians are idolaters, if the church is anything like the ancient Israelite culture that it is supposed to be a continuation of. To judge by the Old Testament, the people of God live in cycles of idolatry, judgment, repentance, and deliverance. Why should God's people today be any less frail?

I don't think the Orthodox and the Catholics are the worst idolaters. Bowing in front of an image is a violation of the second commandment, but it doesn't seem to harm any human beings directly. When a sick person is told that she will get better if she has faith, she might falsely blame herself if she gets sicker. People with psychiatric conditions are told that God doesn't want them to take pills. Charlatans extort money from people who can't afford to give it, telling their marks that God will pay them back a hundredfold. It makes me angry when people give bad advice and false consolation, and support what they say with a "thus sayeth the Lord".

I like Orthodoxy. I like paintings. I like the icons of Jesus and the saints and the angels, they inspire me. I like the stories told in Orthodoxy. I've found ancient Christian spiritual practices to be helpful to me. My objection to Orthodoxy, and to Catholicism, is not to people bowing before marble or wood and paint, but it is to the establishment of the church as a proxy for Christ. The church is an image of Christ, but it isn't him. The church is imperfect, it makes mistakes, it is fallible—I'm convinced of this, and so I did not become Orthodox or Catholic.

After I first learned about the extent of injustice in the world, and the church's insufficient response, I stopped calling myself a Christian—I called myself a Jesus-follower or something, instead. I felt like I knew better than the rest of the church, that I could see injustice and care about it in ways that the rest of the church couldn't, which is such an adolescent attitude to have. Fortunately, that phase only lasted for about a week.

Revelation doesn't work. Protestants can't come to agreement on basic, important things, and the Orthodox and Catholics have converged on bad conclusions. I could privilege my point of view, and say that I have the insight to see through a mistake made by the ancient church, or that I have the insight to get good-enough doctrine for myself from the Bible. I decided that it would be immature for me to think that I have some sense of spirituality that most people don't have. When I stopped assuming that I'm special, I didn't think I could do much better at figuring out God than most of the people that I disagree with.

God is supposed to be all-powerful. The Bible could have been a little more specific on important things. The history of Christian theology made me despair over whether I could figure out God in a meaningful way, myself. In evangelicalism, finding out God's will for one's life, listening for the Holy Spirit's direction, praying for guidance, these things are normal. Yet, if I couldn't trust God to be clear to the whole church about something important, like icon veneration, how could I trust God to speak to me about little things?

I wasn't just looking for something to cross-stitch and hang on my wall. I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. I was horrified by global injustice, and that people around me were satisfied with the meaning they found in living comfortable lives. What did God want me to do about war and hunger and disease? What did God want me to do about helping people know him? I had thought that God had been leading me, inspiring me, giving me understanding, but maybe that voice was just my own little idol.