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. (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 “d.litt.et 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. 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”.