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Casual Conversations: On Authority and Hell

June 6th, 2008 · Posted by Hugo · 19 Comments

In the future, when I share stories about interesting conversations, I want to protect the anonymity of the person I was talking to. If I were to write a number of posts involving the same conversation, I may mix it up a little so that readers can’t build up too much of a profile. It may require a rather delicate balance: enough info for context, but not too much for compromised anonymity.

This post is not necessarily related to the previous one. πŸ˜‰ (If you read the previous post, but not the comments: I added some more details in the comments.) Anyway, below I do talk about a conversation with a Shofarian. It wasn’t a terribly long conversation, not being the best time to discuss such things, but there were two particularly interesting comments.

Sources of Authority

The first, paraphrased:

I will listen to what someone has to say in two cases. The first is if he is talking out of experience. [Ed.: I presume this would also include education, demonstrated by degrees and qualifications for example.] The second is if he can say to me “God Says”…

Yea, this blew my mind. I really wasn’t expecting this from this particular person. How could anyone hand over so much power over themselves? was the first thing I was thinking. Does he even *realise* how much power he is handing over, to whoever is prepared to say “God says”, with the right amount of passion and charisma, and the right frills and context and carefully selected Bible quotes (quote mining) to back him up? There have been so many quacks making fraudulent claims and statements of that sort. I could dig up a dozen easy examples where he won’t listen to that kind of claim. He won’t listen to a Muslim prophet saying “Allah says”, he won’t listen to Joseph Smith or the claims of the Book of Mormon. Or I could go a more demonstrative route, look him straight in the eye, and tell him what God told me…

What might I have said? Um… now this depends on some context, doesn’t it. Suppose, hypothetically, it was the context of the previous post. I could have said something similar to “God says I must get my degree, God has bigger plans for me”. Quite simple really. Quite agreeable. But with enough passion and a little chutzpah in my (subconscious) mind, that might have come out with a couple of more interesting and challenging frills.

But no, I didn’t say anything like that, it was just the idea that immediately popped into my head. That was when I decided that, if I were to ever demonstrate that kind of rhetoric, I will be honest about it: My God says… Because after all, every person has a slightly different notion of God. Even in congregations where they try their best to develop clones, there is still some diversity in understanding.

The moderate/progressive/emergent/McLaren style for dealing with “my God, your God”, is to think of it as “each sees a fragment of God, a particular perspective, and the best understanding and appreciation is achieved if you listen to the diverse viewpoints, each has something to contribute”. And that cuts across multiple religions as well. And everyone has some pieces right, and some pieces wrong, and we need the humility to know that we don’t know everything, recognising that in some ways the Muslim might actually be more correct than you, and in other ways you might be more correct than the Muslim. (Any Muslims reading: bear with me, I’m assuming a Christian audience.)

And yes, Einstein knows a thing or two about God that the more traditional theist doesn’t know, so listen to him as well. And be humble and open to multiple ideas.

I like McLaren’s approach. He didn’t explicitly include Einstein, but I think he’d agree with me on a conceptual level. To the non-theists reading this, I chose a moderate example. We could include every human, in fact. As I’ve heard in emerging circles, the “divine spark” is found in every human, whether everyone calls it that or not.

Now two examples of local churches… Theo Geyser never says “God says…” — not in the way the Shofarian means — and I doubt he ever will. But he talks from experience, he talks from education, something like a “ phil.”. (Can’t I just call it a PhD?) Fred May, on the other hand, has no degree (correct me if I’m wrong). His source of authority is the “God says” kind. In fact, Shofar’s teachings typically develop a distrust of the educated theologian/preacher/pastor.

What hell boils down to

I like the person in question. He is a very friendly person, and seems to be a person that really does care about his students. And he does seem able to “keep it professional”. (So yes, he’s in academia, but he’s not necessarily the same person as in the previous post.) That conversation lead to this piece of common ground (again paraphrased):

Well basically, I believe that what you do, matters.

This was in response to a quick question about hell from my side. I can’t remember the exact phrasing, but I was touching on the topic of “so who goes to hell?” With this response, he cuts to the heart — the good heart, not the evil heart — of that particular belief.

Basically, you can’t just do what you want, you can’t go running around killing people, there is a “right” and a “wrong”. And there we all agree. (Well, except the psychopaths. And those that have not yet broken out the other side of nihilism.) And this then, is really what the meaning of the heaven/hell/afterlife belief is about. What you do in this life, really does matter.

The humanist also has convictions and beliefs as to why things matter, as does the law-abiding citizen. Whether the deterrent is a fear of hell, a fear of prison, or a true morality based on actually caring about your fellow man, we do all agree. And there I recovered much respect for the man. Even if he does actually believe I’m going to hell. πŸ˜› He avoided doctrinal debates, kept things professional, cut to the chase and ended that train of thought. (Or he was just deftly side-stepping the uncomfortable questions that would inevitably follow from someone that thinks too much. Either option is admirable.)

The “stereotyped Shofarian” would typically hold the view reflected by a quote I saw in a “Joy” magazine, paraphrased: “Remember, good people don’t go to heaven, believers go to heaven!” It apparently isn’t about what you do, it is about what you believe. To be fair though, the idea is that those beliefs do end up shaping your actions.

The sense in which this is good: good actions done with a bad attitude doesn’t really grant you that “taste of the Kingdom of Heaven” (on this world, in this life, I’m not talking about an afterlife here) — it is when your heart is in it that you draw the most value out of it. However, the other way round can also work: even if your heart isn’t in it, maybe the act of lending a helping hand, the experience of making a real positive difference in the life of someone less fortunate, can help your heart come around, have a positive impact on your attitude. This is where practises, traditions, “disciplines”, of certain religious traditions come in handy.

That last bit reminds me of the agnostic that committed to a year of following all the rules in the Bible [boingboing]. He discovered value in that approach to life. See the boingboing post for a short overview and his “conclusion”.

Categories: Shofar · Worldviews
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19 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Hugo // Jun 7, 2008 at 1:36 am

    “Casual Conversations” was my third idea, looking for some kind of “brand” I can establish for posts like these. Various interesting anecdotes drawn from various conversations I recall. I.e. there will be a number of “Casual Conversations” posts, if I choose to keep the name.

    I’m not so sure about it so far… do you think “Casual Conversations:” can work? It sounds… uh… I dunno, but I’m not so sure about it. Maybe the alliteration idea isn’t that great. Any better suggestions?

    For an example of another post in this series, that I’m likely to write soonish: some thoughts on a brief fragment of conversation with some conservative friends, about the abortion question, asked in the context of a movie we were watching.

  • 2 Ben-Jammin' // Jun 7, 2008 at 3:10 am

    God told me to tell you that authoritarianism is the way to go.


  • 3 Kenneth Oberlander // Jun 8, 2008 at 5:24 pm

    God told me that he doesn’t exist…

    OK, seriously. I would find it very difficult to continue a conversation under those terms. Depending on mood, I’d probably tell him the above, and see how he takes it…

    I haven’t had a conversation with a fundamentalist or evangelical worth speaking of since my res days. I must admit to being morbidly curious about the outcome of such a meeting…

  • 4 Amo // Jun 11, 2008 at 10:45 pm

    Note: “Remember, good people don’t go to heaven, believers go to heaven!” it is a onliner Angus Buchan loves to use. It refers to the biblical principle that we can’t save ourselves (through good deeds), but are saved by ( believing in) Jesus Christ.

    I quite like the quote for this meaning.

    The blog “loop” hu?
    Goeie werk

  • 5 Hugo // Jun 11, 2008 at 11:18 pm

    According to one of the podcasts I’m listening to, there’s some potentially interesting differences between the first century understanding of what it means to be… um… “saved”, to use contemporary words, and what is typically meant today. Though, one could also argue the difference is rather in the nuance, in the “emphasis”.

    In this comment I’m referring mostly to Paul’s letter to the Galatians (and two of the “episodes” of Philip Harland’s first series of podcasts, part 1.7 and part 1.8.) He talks about Paul talking about the “entrance requirements” to become a part of a “Jesus group” (for lack of a better word), and the debate as to whether circumcision is a requirement or not. This “entrance requirement”, this idea of “salvation”, was more about becoming part of the group, the “people of God”, than it was about “getting into heaven”. But yes, they had the understanding that heaven was what awaits the “people of God” upon death, hence the statement above that the difference might arguably be in the emphasis/nuance.

    Anyway, I need to listen to that podcast again, Philip made interesting comments about how Luther’s interpretation differed from what was likely Paul’s meaning, as he came at it from a different context. And then maybe go read up more on Luther’s context, as Philip’s podcast doesn’t go into depth. From my understanding, Luther, as reformer, was responding to Catholic doctrine of the “works” by which you “buy your way into heaven”. Luther used those passages about entrance requirements into the “Jesus groups” as source for his teachings on “Justification by faith alone”.

    So develops theology. And so I also don’t have complete faith in Luther’s interpretation of Galatians… But I do consider his teachings in that regard of great value in liberation from prior (Catholic?) doctrines…

  • 6 Hugo // Jun 11, 2008 at 11:24 pm

    And what I don’t like, is the flip-side that one can also get out of that quote: “if you don’t believe the right thing, if you lack the right beliefs…, you go burn in hell”. Tasty. Toasty. There is a huge difference for me between:

    “You don’t have to keep on doing all these ‘works’ and you don’t have to buy your family out of purgatory, in order to reach heaven.”


    “You will burn in hell if you don’t believe the right things.”

    And of course:

    “Special ‘works’ are unnecessary to join the Jesus groups, faith in Jesus’s demonstration of how to live is enough.”

    Big difference… is that the problem with communication between “insiders” and “outsiders”? Do “insiders” understand it mostly in ways 1 and 3, while “outsiders” unfortunately get stuck at 2? (“Burn!”) I’m not so sure… I’m sure there are many “insiders” who take quite a hellish view of statements like those.

  • 7 // Jun 14, 2008 at 4:55 am

    Fred May came to my house one night, stood on the doorstep, declining to enter although I invited him in – then looked me straight in the eye and said:

    “Alex, God told me to tell you … that I must trust you …”


    Okay Fred – give ALL the money back, tell the truth about all your bullshit miracles and raising the dead – Like your ex-elders testify – they never happened. Then leave Stellenbosch and go find a proper job somewhere, where you work for your own money, like a real man and look after your family. God told me to tell you that you are an opportunistic parasite and a liar, using apartheid and the Bible to enrich yourself and no one else from your previously disadvantaged community … in fact you treat them so badly, your own coloured people – that here in Stellenbosch they despise you in Cloetesville and Idas Valley – and it is the wrong example to your children. It is a filthy example to the church.

    Now Fred, if you ignore me then you are in rebellion to God – who told you to trust me. Good reason for that too. I don’t lie like you do and the truth will set those poor single mother’s you rob of money – free.

  • 8 Hugo // Jun 16, 2008 at 2:18 pm

    For the record, I heard rumours that some of the “ouderlinge” at Shofar are getting a little frustrated with Fred changing his mind. The rumours suggested he has one idea/dream, then he hears God give another instruction, so he drops all the previous plans and throws everything behind the new command. Nevermind whether Fred or his “ouderlinge” are on the right track, what was most interesting was what the “new instructions” were, according to the rumours.

    The rumours suggested Fred had heard God say he must build an orphanage. Kinda interesting how that reflects what you’re saying. Wouldn’t know if he believes God spoke to him through you or on his own, but there is some confirmation of commandments here… πŸ˜‰ According to the rumours I heard, that is…

  • 9 // Jun 16, 2008 at 9:48 pm

    I would throw my energy and resources behind anyone willing to go to Matt 18 and be obedient to the Christ they say they worship in Spirit and in truth. I would call those who live on the beach with Jesus at sunrise in John 21 my brothers and sisters in Christ – as far as Fred chopping and changing his mind, and then blaming the Father for it – I understand Scripture to teach that the gifts and callings of God are irrevocable. No matter what hell holes I might have driven myself to through depression and despair in the last twenty years, not for one second has my understanding of what the mission of the body of Christ. If we treat just one generation of children right – we will change the world forever,

    The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring…

    I think Fred wants to serve the Father, it is just that he’s been serving his own enormous ego and using the church to satisfy his apartheid bitterness and financial sense of entitlement for so long that he’s made the task almost impossible for himself – and he truly struggles to hear above that noise.

    It is the reason why he and his Lucille cannot face me or any of the other Christians who supported them morally, emotionally and financially – not even his ex-elders. Almost to a person we confronted them on twisted doctrine and the corporate vision of the church and we were warned not to defy Fred, when we refused to bow to threats guarded or otherwise, we were ostracised, gossiped and vicious untrue things were said about us along the lines of I apparently seduced that long, long list of Shofar virgins. I’m the only one he ever tried to have locked up.

    The other thing of course, is Oude Molen was “given” to Shofar – so why does he need to build anything? Just renovate Oude Molen into Oude Molen Kinderhuis, a US SR Project in conjunction with all the studentekerke – I’ve surveyed the premises – it is much, much cheaper from a project management point of view, it is morally right because of slavery and alcohol foetal syndrome pandered from there in the form of producing cheap liquor and the turn around time to the first orphan eating their first meal in their new home could be sooner than the new year, it could happen before the end of what is turning into another bitter winter … it is only the May ego in the way. It has been like that since day one.

  • 10 // Jun 16, 2008 at 10:05 pm

    Hugo, if Fred May turned Oude Molen into Oude Molen Kinderhuis, I would instruct my lawyers in London and South Africa to redirect everything that will come into my trust to the home the very next day, and china if I work hard enough for the next year – I think I might be able to set up an investment portfolio to feed the whole lot with the interest from my work – myself.

    In fact, I make a solemn promise before my Father that I will. The home can have all my intellectual property, royalties and art sales, in exchange for being appointed head of the nursery. I would not need to leave South Africa like I am planning to either. I will have the dream I had and started praying for in prison a long time ago and sing to my Father in a church full of orphans whose family is that church. And after we have sung to our Father, we all break bread in a love feast like He commanded.

    It is not much to ask – and I will give all I have in exchange, me and my family.

  • 11 // Jun 16, 2008 at 10:41 pm

    For you, it would be a more up close and personal place to find use for your money, and something worthwhile to visit in S.A…

  • 12 Hugo // Jun 16, 2008 at 10:52 pm

    That would indeed be a miracle. (Hint, hint: if Fred wanted to work a miracle that impressed people like me…)

  • 13 // Jun 16, 2008 at 11:10 pm

    Well, if we don’t believe in miracles and can’t embrace our enemies – we can’t call ourselves Christians now can we … ?

  • 14 // Jun 16, 2008 at 11:19 pm

    And just for shits and giggles, I would write an addendum to Acid Alex for the next edition telling the world that this transpired, I would also speak to my associates in L.A. and London and arrange for a credit at the end of the movie of Acid Alex that we are busy working on and it will be credited on every certification certificate that accompanies my art pieces on sale in London and Austria or wherever else. I will mention it in future press releases, on radio, TV and describe the events on my blog. I will sing songs to my little baby Robbie about it, and he can go to creche there with our other babies.

  • 15 Hugo // Jun 16, 2008 at 11:22 pm

    Quite. And I’m still enough of a Christian to go with that.

  • 16 // Jun 17, 2008 at 1:37 am

    FYI here’s my blog:

  • 17 Carla // Jun 21, 2008 at 10:23 pm

    From Billy Meier

    Religion is only a primitive machination by Man to command, suppress and exploit others, to which only life forms that are weak in their consciousness succumb.

    When Man indulges in his religions, i.e. malevolent, erroneous doctrines, his consciousness wastes away more and more and ultimately leads to a bottomless abyss.


  • 18 Hugo // Jun 21, 2008 at 11:00 pm

    Thanks for the contribution. Strong words… from a UFO kook. Meh. If you’re a fan, I could recommend reading Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World”, if you are interested in truth.

    Anyway, recent anthropological theories on the development of religion paint a more “cooperative” picture for the reasons of its developments. With religion defined as “mans’ relationship to the supernatural”, the idea is that a shared narrative of a “higher power” helps build trust in the community/tribe, aiding cooperation and thus survival. (Axiomatically accepting that cooperation is a good thing.)

    This a friend told me, who studied psychology and looks into all these kinds of things. Very interesting. I must still get my hands on that paper.

    Of course, this does give much power to the person that takes a leadership role in propagating a particular religion. They cannot be trusted. And beyond that, more and more people are losing their supernatural beliefs. May they discover and commit to humanist values. *holding thumbs*

  • 19 Al Lovejoy // Jun 23, 2008 at 2:46 pm

    Cast your bread upon the water …

    Jesus Christ and Ghandi would agree wholeheartedly Carla. Thet both opposed religion with their very lives. We know what happened to Christ, but Ghandi on his death bed … starving himself to stop a war, said to the enraged Hindu Father of a child war victim – go find the orphan of one of your enemies also killed in this war and raise him in the ways of his father.

    Both Christ and Ghandi put the crux and test of our spirituality, our Common Spirituality, regardless of religion – right there. How much do care for this world as a loving Father cares. That is a question every religion must answer. And those who claim to know the Father of Christ, should love the world the same way. Something the world should be able to see, put its arms around and feed.

    So there is the challenge. I will give all I have to the children, the student churches provide the love and hands – and Shofar hands over the Oude Molen.

    The pastor who asked his congregation to take off their shoes for the poor was a genuis. Those people could afford to lose that pair of shoes but what they got for nothing is what it feels like to walk without them …

    In the wake of the Xenephobic attacks and the people who were killed and injured when the building I used to live in next to Shofar collapsed – it seems a call has gone out to from local pastors to co-operate finally –
    Great, so show us – be our leaders and examples …

    Scripture says how lovely are the feet … and in our modern era that means a vehicle to get to the victims. So, Christian leaders of Stellenbosch – to show our Father firstly and then the cynical world that you mean real business, apart from just opening the orphanage at Oude Molen – why don’t you challenge the Lord to visit you with a revival, a real spiritual revival – and the pastors of Idas Valley, Kayamandi, Cloetesville and the other previously disadvantaged communities – swap their cars with the pastors from Stellenbosch and those from the previously advantaged white community – as well as their congregations for a year.

    This sensless violence is born out of anger at continuous post-apartheid poverty and isolation amongst criminal youth in our ghetto and shanty communities, while those fleeing war, thrive – So attack it back from your poor brother’s pulpit, break bread, eat and have love feasts with his congregation – while you prove to the enemy you are not bound by it by giving your car and your flock to him, including the money they give – For one year. Jesus gave his life.

    In Malachi, God says test me in this….

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