Saturday, June 25, 2005

Reply To David Stern

One person with whom I had many exchanges in the Catholic forum in Yahoo in which I participated posted a comment to my previous entry. Here is my reply:

Dear David,

I was pleasantly surprised to receive your comments. Although I invited those in the Yahoo forum to check out my blog and offer comments, I didn't expect that anyone would. Now I'd like to address some of your points.

Of course it is easy for you to come to that conclusion as you are not a practicing Catholic.

I'm not sure "conclusion" is the correct word for it. I try to keep my mind open to the possibility that there is more truth to Christianity than I realize. And, even though I intend to write a book summarizing my misgivings about Christianity, how can I be certain that my research, contemplation, and life experience won't effect a radical change of heart and plans?

As near as I can tell you practice nothing.

If you read my essay on "Integral Spiritual Practice," you know that I don't engage in a formal religious or spiritual practice. However, one could say that my life is my practice. Since I was a boy, I've been intensely interested in spirituality and philosophy in the classical sense of the "love of wisdom," and I meditate, read, reflect, thank the Lord virtually every day for my life and good fortune, and strive to mindfully manifest lovingkindness, equanimity, empathy, compassion, joy, and wisdom. Of course, when I speak of the "Lord," I am referring to something quite different than what Catholics appear to mean by the term. There is a book by Eknath Easwaran called Original Goodness that eloquently expresses his and my understanding of the Lord.

you did not participate in a discussion of faith and how the posters experience God; rather you urgently kept asking the same two questions about hell and “homosexual union.”

David, if the Church is wrong about hell and homosexual unions, then I believe that it's a fundamentally flawed institution, no matter what individual Catholics report of their experiences of God. Although I did invite Catholics in the Yahoo forum to talk about their faith and personal experiences, I focused on Catholic teachings and concepts, and, with all due respect to your perception, this focus consisted of more than "the same two questions" about hell and homosexuality.

In Living Buddha, Living Christ Thich Nhat Hanh asserts the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ.

Thich Nhat Hanh has given no indication I'm aware of that he believes in the Catholic concept of Jesus as the unique son of the Big Boss in heaven, and when he writes that "the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ," this is to be understood in terms of the Buddhist understanding of interconnectedness--Nhat Hanh calls it "interbeing"-- in which every object and event in the past and present universe exists and functions only relation to all of the others. I believe that Catholics would find this antithetical to their own understanding of the Eucharist.

Do you suppose he is able to do so by assuming a stance of mutuality toward Catholicism rather than deconstructionism?

I respect Thich Nhat Hanh's non-confrontational approach to dialogue with people of other faiths. However, I also believe that there's a place for respectfully asking questions that go to the heart of a faith's teachings, and this is what I endeavor to do when I discuss Christianity.

Maybe he can teach you if you want to be taught.

I have many teachers, and Thich Nhat Hanh is certainly one of them.

David, thank you for writing. I'd be more than happy to continue dialogueing with you in public or in private.

A Fond Farewell

I have spent entirely too much time recently discussing Christianity with Catholics in an online religion forum. The last several entries in this blog are excerpts from that involvement. There are so many other things I should have been doing, including posting new entries in this blog, which I didn’t because I was too busy discussing abortion, homosexuality, hell, faith, moral absolutes, and other controversial issues online. Yet, I would like to think that it wasn’t a complete waste of my time. For I felt so much passion and pleasure doing it that I realized how important it is to me to understand and discuss Christianity. Seldom do I feel more engaged and alive than when I am doing this, despite the fact that I believe that Christianity is essentially a hopelessly flawed religion. Nevertheless, it is time for me to get out of that forum and do other things. And so I posted the following there to announce my departure and my plans.

I want to thank everyone who discussed Christianity with me these past several weeks. I enjoyed it very much. I also learned more about your beliefs and my own than I knew before. Perhaps you also learned more about mine. Non-Christians sometimes think Christians are gullible and stupid. I don’t agree with them, and our discussions here have reinforced this for me. On the other hand, Christians often think non-Christians are sinfully proud rejecters of God’s will and grace. I believe that both Christians and non-Christians can earnestly and intelligently hold the positions they do. This doesn’t mean that all do so earnestly and intelligently, but some do.

I believe that I will never be Christian. I do plan to study the faith more, but I suspect that I will always disagree with too many of its fundamental tenets to embrace it. In fact, I intend to write a book someday titled “Why I Am Not a Christian.” Some of you may know that the famous philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote a book with this same title decades ago.

Yet, I also intend to write a book that summarizes my ideal of a new religion that links humankind with Ultimate Reality in a way that more people of this age can find credible and inspiring. And like most new things of value, my hypothetical new religion will borrow from the best of what has come before, including Christianity, and integrate it with the best of our new scientific, philosophical, theological, and spiritual understandings of the Kosmos.

I believe that the best of Christianity is to be found in the writings of its great mystics and in the Sermon on the Mount. I believe that these writings and their insights compare favorably with the best in all of the world’s religions. I believe that if more Christians embodied the wisdom and spirit of these writings, the world would be a happier and better place, and people would flock to the faith who are now unimpressed or even repulsed by how few people who call themselves Christian consistently try to live up to its ideals and manifest its spirit.

But I believe that this shortcoming stems more from inadequacies in Christianity itself than in those who profess to be Christian. I believe that Christianity’s understanding of God and humankind is unrealistic, and that it preaches and moralizes too much and strives too little to open people’s minds and hearts to direct and transfiguring apprehension of God’s loving and unifying presence.

I know that many of you will shake your heads and say that I’ve really gone off the deep end. Not only do I turn my back on the one true faith, but I also presume to offer the world something better, something truer and more fulfilling. What megalomania! What sinful arrogance! “Place your faith in the divine authority of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior and in that of God’s revelations through Holy Scripture and Mother Church,” you will want to tell me. But my faith does not cling blindly to the authority of texts and institutions that claim to speak for what Alan Watts called “the which than which there is no whicher.” My faith lies in my capacity to discern spiritual fact from religious fancy, divine truth from human fiction. You may call this egotistical. But my faith lies not in myself or in anything uniquely mine, but in a natural, though often underutilized, capacity that lies in each of us as a glorious reflection of the divine.

Thank you all for your time and trouble, and I wish you all profound peace and happiness.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Discussion Continues

Here is part of the reply I received in a Catholic forum to a message I recently posted there and reposted in my previous blog entry.

I don’t think we have the same understanding here. The Catholic Church doesn’t teach that homosexual couples are incapable of experiencing deepening feelings of love and commitment through sexual “relations.” Of course they are capable of feeling that. Any two people can feel deepening love and commitment that may be associated with sexual pleasure, kissing, cuddling, or even handholding. The argument is not that homosexuals are not capable of feeling this -- the argument is that a true “marriage,” in which a couple truly become “one flesh,” requires a physical union of two complementary sexes that complete each other sexually and together comprise one whole – a union of which is always ordered toward the generation of new life (whether new life is actually generated or not).

Now, scientifically it can be shown conclusively that two males engaged in sexual activity DO NOT share the totality of human sexuality (they lack the female component in both physiology and capability) – and therefore can never comprise a complete union, which is marriage. To put it bluntly, just sticking one part into another does not make “union.” Marital union is achieved by uniting two incomplete, different yet complementary expressions of humanity into one complete whole. And it is not MERELY the sexual organs we are talking about here. It is all the physiological and psychological differences that are unique to male and female – that together comprise the totality of what is human (and the total image of God, by the way). THAT is what unites into an organic whole. The physical act of sexual intercourse brings all of this into unity, and only that complete union is CAPABLE of creating LIFE ITSELF – propagating the human species, and sharing the very power of God, who is the Creator of life.

That, and only that, is what human sexuality exists for. It is a perfect design. It needs no modifications or alternatives. And that is why a true marriage can ONLY be achieved by one man and one woman. Anything else falls short of this perfect unity in completeness – and can never be held up as equal to that perfect design.

And here is how I replied:

Thank you for showing me that I had previously misunderstood part of your and other people’s representations of the Church’s arguments against homosexual relations, and I’m pleased to see that the Church doesn’t necessarily teach that homosexual relations can’t have a unifying or deepening psychological effect on a homosexual relationship.

However, it still seems to me that if homosexual couples can love and commit to one another deeply in ways that are virtually indistinguishable from what we can see in the best of childless heterosexual marriages, and if sexual relations can foster such relationships in homosexual couples, then, while the Church may never view a homosexual marriage or partnership as being on equal terms with a heterosexual marriage, it could follow St Paul’s advice that “it’s better to marry than to burn” and accept homosexual marriage as preferable to the highly probable occurrence of damnable sin committed by homosexuals in whom the human need for physical as well as psychological intimacy is too powerful for there to be any realistic expectation that it will be resisted on a widespread basis. This would be a compassionate application of empirical human psychology to morality in place of a morality that tries to conform all human behavior to what I’ve previously called a “Procrustean Bed” of abstract theological ideals that ignore concrete human reality. The Church now confronts homosexuals who want to remain within its good graces with a terrible choice: Either they submit to the earthly torture and disfigurement of the Procrustean Bed, or they refuse to submit and figuratively or literally burn in hell. Or they can relinquish belief that the Church’s teachings about morality and hell and almost everything else have divine authority, which, so far as the Church is concerned, is likely to plunge them into hell. It just seems to me that a supremely loving, just, and merciful God and a Church that truly represents and serves him, would take all of this into account and permit homosexuals to marry.

And even if the Church could not go that far, I fail to understand why it not only refuses to marry homosexual couples within the Church, but also actively opposes civil marriages outside the Church. For it’s one thing for the Church to say that you can’t be a homosexual Catholic in good standing with Church teachings and marry someone of your same gender with or without Church blessings, but it is quite another and different thing for the Church to use the full weight of its influence to prevent secular society from performing and recognizing CIVIL marriage involving Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

If the Church could produce conclusive evidence that such marriages would seriously victimize innocent people on a scale that would cause grave harm to society, it might have a case. Yet, it seems to me that the only case the Church can make is that an alleged God allegedly says that homosexual relations and a marital legitimization of them are wrong because only a man and a woman can form a metaphysical union of “one flesh” that is “open” to “propagating the human species” even if a given heterosexual couple’s capacity to do this is nullified by physical impossibility.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Evidence vs Authority

I've been engaged in friendly (and sometimes not-so-friendly) discussion with Catholics in an online forum for the last several days about various teachings and policies of the Church. I am now discussing the Church's teachings about homosexual relations. The Church teaches that homosexual relations are "intrinsically disordered" acts of "grave depravity" contrary to God's scriptural commands and to natural law. I take issue with these teachings on several grounds and have not been reticent to express them. Someone wrote the following to me last night:

So you dismiss the accumulated wisdom of centuries, indeed millennia, of COHERENT thought that has endured through civilizations the world over throughout history -- you call it antiquated garbage merely because you choose to disagree with it, and instead you offer the allegedly superior wisdom of what "they" say?

This is how I replied:

"Coherent thought" can simply mean false conclusions that logically follow from false premises. "Accumulated wisdom" can simply mean logical but false philosophical or theological arguments that have been accepted by those who either lacked the means to observe the real facts or by those who had the means but were so deferential to authority or so kowtowed by threats against life and limb or livelihood that they wouldn't observe them or admit what they saw if they did. Centuries of "coherent accumulated wisdom" said that the sun circled the Earth, and the Church denounced and suppressed all challenges to it until it finally couldn't any longer.

A hallmark of any proposition about the real world is its testability or falsifiability. One can make all kinds of logical arguments about the way the world is, but if one cannot show how those assertions could ever be tested and shown to be false or, at least, cast into serious doubt, they aren't worth the paper they’re written on. Well, homosexuals are part of the real world, and so are their feelings. But tell me, Marko, how would anyone go about falsifying Catholic teaching that homosexual couples can't experience the same deepening of their love and commitment through sexual relations that heterosexuals can and have those results accepted by the Church? You and I both know that the Church would respond and has responded to any such attempts the way the Church leaders did when Galileo tried to get them to look through the telescope. You could give the Church hundreds of well-designed psychological studies showing conclusions that counter Church teachings, and it would say, “ These results can't be true because centuries of accumulated wisdom inspired by God tell us otherwise." For the Church, it's not "I'll believe it when I see it" but "I'll see it when I believe it," and the Church has too much invested in its anti-homosexual stance to believe and consequently see any facts to the contrary anytime soon.

You asked how I could presume to dismiss the accumulated wisdom of the Church. It’s easy. If the Church says the Earth is flat and I can see that it’s round, I say the Church is wrong. How would you dismiss anything the Church teaches? If you can’t think of any conceivable way, then what good are those teachings and your belief in them?

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Absurd vs Rational Faith

The fullest use of reason tells us that we can be certain of nothing but our own conscious experience. We can't be certain of the existence of anything outside our conscious experience because we have no way of stepping outside our conscious experience to verify by a means independent of our conscious experience that anything exists outside that experience. Thus, we cannot be certain of the world that seems to be outside us or of a God that is said to be. Thus, those who claim certitude of the biblical God speak falsely, and a God who would command us to feel certain enough of his existence to love, obey, and serve him upon pain of everlasting torture if we don't, is a God who asks us to misuse and dishonor the rational faculty he allegedly gave us.

I am a man of faith. Not in a biblical God who commands us to feel certain of that of which we cannot be certain, but in my capacity to discern the absurdity of this alleged command and to dismiss it as nonsense unless and until somone can show me good reason not to. So far, nobody has.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Addendum to Yesterday

Here is an addendum to yesterday's entry.

Nature aborts approximately 75% of all pregnancies. If the biblical God made nature, one could say that God aborts all of these pregnancies. In other words, God aborts vastly many more pregnancies than people do. Some would say that if God does it, it’s not an abortion. But this seems like a silly play on words. A miscarriage and a medical abortion have the same result—a “baby” dies in the womb. It’s an abortion.

Yet, do Christian opponents of abortion rail and protest against God for aborting these poor “babies”? No. Do they mourn these innocent victims of God’s abortions? No. It’s perfectly okay with them if God does it, but not if people do. They say that when God aborts a conceptus, it’s God’s plan for that child, but not when people do it.

Yet, what is the real difference for the conceptus? Do Christian opponents of abortion truly believe that the soul of a conceptus aborted by God meets a different fate than does the soul of a conceptus aborted by humans? What would that difference be? Does the soul of a conceptus aborted by God go to heaven and the soul of a conceptus aborted by humans go to hell? The soul of the conceptus aborted by people was no more responsible for what happened to it than was the soul of the conceptus aborted by God, so why would it not go to the same place that the souls of conceptuses aborted by God go?

Some Christian opponents of abortion say that we don’t know where any of these souls go, but that they have faith in God’s supreme justice and mercy. How could this faith lead them to any other conclusion than that God sends all aborted souls to heaven? For how could God be just and merciful if he penalized these innocent souls by sending them to anywhere but heaven?

Some Christians say that God can do anything he wants and that it’s good simply because he does it. So, if he wants to send the souls of conceptuses aborted by humans or all aborted souls to hell, it is good because he does it. Well then, one could use that same argument to say that if God ever tells us to rape our children, it’s good because God has told us to do it. If everything God does is good simply because he does it, we have no grounds for saying that anything he could conceivably do would be evil. If a Christian wouldn’t accept a tautological definition of God’s goodness, then he or she implicitly believes that God’s acts are not good simply because he does them, but because they meet standards of goodness that we use to judge all acts, including God’s or those attributed to God. Our standards of goodness tell us that innocent aborted souls must go to heaven and that a God who didn’t meet this standard would not be good. If God is good, he must meet this standard and send all aborted souls to heaven.

So, all aborted souls go to heaven. On the other hand, souls whose bodies aren’t aborted have a very good chance of going to hell, for the Bible says that the gate to heaven is narrow whereas the road to hell is wide. Christian opponents of abortion say that all souls should be able to choose for themselves where they will go. But if that’s true, why does God deny this choice to 75% or more of all souls? What’s more, what woman who truly loves the “pre-born child” in her womb would want it to end up suffering everlasting torture in the dungeon of hell?

Christian opponents of abortion say that a woman who aborts her child is selfish. But if she aborts her child because she wants to spare it suffering in this life and a strong possibility of going to hell in the next even though she knows that she could spend eternity in hell for doing it, she is committing the most selfless act imaginable—risking the damnation of her eternal soul to guarantee that her child’s soul enjoys everlasting bliss in heaven.

So, a Christian cannot credibly argue that abortion is wrong because it’s necessarily a selfish act of the mother that harms the “pre-born child.” I have shown that abortion is the ultimate gift that one could give to any child—a non-revocable ticket to everlasting bliss, and that it can be a supremely selfless act on the part of the mother. Abortion may violate God’s command not to abort, but what external standard of goodness dictates that God’s command is good? If our standard of goodness says that everyone should have the chance to choose for herself whether she goes to heaven or to hell, doesn’t God himself violate this standard for more than 75% of created souls? If God does only good, then abortion can't be wrong because it deprives souls of their choice. There must be some other reason. What is it? If there isn’t any and Christians continue to insist that God's innumerable spontaneous abortions are good, shouldn’t we humans do our best to follow his good example?

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

A Christian and a Philosopher Discuss Abortion

Christian: Abortion is murder.

Philosopher: ‘Murder’ is the unjustified killing of a human being. How is abortion the unjustified killing of a human being?

Christian: The unborn child is an innocent human child in the womb, and there is no justification whatsoever for killing an innocent human child in the womb.

Philosopher: In the early stages of pregnancy, is the conceptus any more a human being than an acorn is an oak tree? Would you say that destroying an acorn is the same as killing an oak tree?

Christian: We’re not talking about acorns and oak trees. We’re talking about the murder of innocent human children.

Philosopher: You haven’t explained how a conceptus in the early stages of its development is any more a human child than an acorn is a young oak tree, and how destroying this conceptus is, in principle, any worse than destroying an acorn.

Christian: The unborn child has a soul; the acorn doesn’t.

Philosopher: Leaving aside the question of how you know that these two claims are true and assuming, for the sake of our discussion, that they are true, how is the soul of a conceptus harmed by abortion?

Christian: It is denied the opportunity to live.

Philosopher: Are you saying that this soul doesn’t live after its body is aborted?

Christian: Of course it lives. Our bodies die, but our souls are immortal.

Philosopher: What happens to the immortal soul of a conceptus after its body is aborted?

Christian: It goes to heaven.

Philosopher: How does going to heaven harm a soul?

Christian: It doesn’t get to experience the joys of this life.

Philosopher: Isn’t it also spared the sorrows and sufferings of this life and ephemeral pleasures infinitely less than the everlasting joys of heavenly bliss, and isn’t it also spared any and all possibility of going to hell?

Christian: It is not for us to make that choice for the child. It should be allowed to choose for itself after it’s born whether it will obey God and go to heaven or disobey God and go to hell.

Philosopher: So, aborting a conceptus doesn’t harm its soul; it deprives it of the chance to choose a course in this life that subjects it to everlasting agony in hell in the next?

Christian: Yes.

Philosopher: Some might say that sparing a soul the opportunity to make this horrendous “choice” is the most humane and justifiable thing that one could do, and, if it is, then aborting a conceptus is not ‘murder.’

If a philosopher and Christian had a real discussion along the lines of the hypothetical dialogue above, I’m sure that it would be much longer and more complicated than that dialogue. And any reasonably well-informed and thoughtful Christian would probably make a far better account of himself than the hapless victim of my mouthpiece the philosopher. Yet, the dialogue raises some points that I’ve never seen discussed in heated debates between the religious opponents of abortion rights and those like myself who support these rights, unless I’m involved in the discussion. I don’t know if this is because these points are too ridiculous for intelligent and sane people to argue, or if it’s for some other reason. I leave that for the reader to decide.

However, it seems plausible to me to argue the following:

If you believe that there is a heaven of everlasting bliss where the good people go and a hell of never-ending torment where the uncleansed sinners go; and if you believe that the souls of the aborted automatically go to heaven, whereas the souls of the rest of us face the very real possibility of agonizing forever in hell, it is neither harmful to the soul to be aborted, nor necessarily selfish of a woman to resort to abortion. In fact, a woman who knows full well that aborting her fetus could plunge her into hell but goes ahead and does it anyway because she wants to feel absolutely certain that her fetus’ soul can’t go to hell could be said to be committing the most selfless rather than selfish act imaginable. In fact, one could even go so far as to argue that the most selfish thing anyone could do would be to give birth to a baby when they know that its soul might well end up in hell someday. And if you say that Christianity teaches that aborted souls don’t go to heaven, doesn’t that seem like just about the most absurdly unjust and unfair religion you could ever imagine? Are you going to use a religion LIKE THAT as the basis of your argument against abortion rights? If you say that Christianity doesn’t say where aborted souls go, do you believe that the God that your religion says is supremely loving, just, and merciful would send these utterly innocent souls to anywhere but heaven?

Of course, I don’t believe in heaven and hell or the God of the Bible, and so typical Christian arguments against abortion rights carry no weight with me whatsoever. Yet, it is no doubt equally true that secular arguments for abortion rights have no persuasive power over Christians. So, I like to frame objections inferred from Christian teachings themselves to argue against Christian arguments against abortion. Some might call this “fighting fire with fire.” Unfortunately, I doubt that my “fire” has ever persuaded a Christian opponent of abortion to change his mind. But it’s sure fun to throw a curve at these “true-believers” from time to time.