Pondering the South African Memesphere – Looking for the Good in Everything header image 2

Abusing the Story of Job

June 30th, 2008 · Posted by Hugo · 90 Comments

This post is nearly 9000 words, my apologies. Writing for many world-views at once takes words. I wrote it for myself firstly, but if you have the time and patience, I believe you will find it to be of interest, no matter your persuasion. I can try to distill it into shorter pieces later, but I really feel it ought to be read as a cohesive whole.

My mother has been battling cancer for some time now. For those that want to know, the people that dedicate their lives to studying such things, have given it a name: Epithelioid Hemangioendotheiloma and Angiosarcoma. As I write this, she is in hospital. This is the fifth time the cancer reared its ugly head. She is undergoing surgery, for the fifth time, tomorrow. This time around she may lose a kidney, and it might become the second time they follow up with radiation therapy.

Just before lunch, my aunt, uncle and three cousins came to visit us, at our home near Stellenbosch, South Africa. They came to support us in our “time of need”. The parents come from a Dutch-Reformed background, but some in that family have taken up the Shofar banner, and most the Angus Buchan banner. To those just joining us, Shofar is a local pentecostal church importing what some people might call American fundamentalism (for the purpose of this post, I would rather just say they take their religion very seriously). Their religious perspectives may probably be described by the American version of the concept of a “Born-Again Christian”. Angus Buchan is a farmer that became a born-again believer, wrote a book named “Faith Like Potatoes” of which a movie was made, believes his prayers have brought rain, caused agricultural success, and raised the dead. It sounds like the prosperity Gospel to me, or in Marcus Borg inspired terms, conventional wisdom.

And then there’s me, strongly disliking labels. If you want more on my history, feel free to ask. I can point at some old blog posts that give some more background, but old blog posts can be misleading. They’re old. Suffices to say, I dislike labels, including the “post-modernist” one, but to throw a bunch together to try to characterise my stance (for those just joining us): existentialist liberal-Christian humanist, and “naturalist”. I consider the label “agnostic” to be an epistemological position, not a statement of beliefs. By that I mean I consider the label completely compatible with “theistic Christian”. However, I do not use it to self-label, I generally prefer describing myself as post-theistic. I generally strive to follow the teachings and Way of life of a carpenter from Nazareth, who in my understanding challenged conventional wisdom, following more in the footsteps of the message of Israel’s prophets than the royal theology of Israel’s monarchy, who formed an integral part of a new tradition that resonates more with exodus theology than the imperial theology of Egypt.

My step-father, mother and sister have been watching my journey the last few years, and as should be the case in any real relationship, we have done some journeying together. My sister studied music. Her face-to-face meeting with the evils in Christian history, through the study of music history, had her starting her journey a number of years before I started mine. It led her on a path that I do not know or understand, because it is her path. But we have now come together and found much common ground, leading to very interesting conversations, as the diversity in our “spiritual” backgrounds give us different viewing angles on the same scene. (For the non-theists joining us, I use the word “spiritual” in a way that could also be used to describe Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins. Refer: Dawkins’ favourite lines from Unweaving the Rainbow.) My step-father had the (mis?)fortune of having me recommend and lend him a number of books. (Emerging church books, and some “liberal theology”.) My mother grew up with my aunt, and comes from the same strongly religious background, but paths may separate when siblings leave the home. Recently she observed my journey through conversations we’ve had, which undoubtedly had some effect on how she views tradition diversity.

The point being, we all have a somewhat different approach to things spiritual and human and meaning-in-life. A heterogeneous crowd is a hard crowd in which to practise metaphorical rituals and communicate with reference to wisdom traditions. Particularly when it comes to matters of grappling with mortality and meaning, and fighting off absurdism and nihilism. (See the nice table on Wikipedia’s Absurdism page.) Our languages differ, because we do not all use the same corpus, the same Meh — we do not refer to the exact same mythos and interpretation thereof with our words and metaphors.

And we were all there together, a gathering of relatives, standing together in a time of trial. Initiated by my aunt, uncle and cousins, they came to support us in the best way they know: they drew from their religious traditions and practises. We had what could maybe be described as a Shofar gathering in our home, complete with inspirational pieces from the Bible, a section from an Angus Buchan daily devotional, lots of prayer, laying on of hands, symbolic salving with oil, and the bread and wine of the Eucharist. (OK, it was Grapetiser, rather than wine, and my mother only took a crumb of bread and a drop of Grapetiser, as she was not allowed to eat. But now I digress…)

Having set the scene, below I describe my take on this event. Let’s see how many times I can rock the boat.

Take One

I was in my cottage when the gathering began in the house. My sister contacted me to invite me down, explaining their request that we all gather together for some prayer and for communion.

My aunt had recently been diagnosed with melanoma, and was carried through trying times by their religion and their faith in God. Translated to my world-view, I consider her way of dealing with her cancer very brave. She took the attitude of being thankful to God that this was the path God wanted to walk with her, that her relationship with God may grow. Her cancer was successfully removed by surgery, and they are thankful to God for her health. The experience brought their family closer together, built deeper and stronger relationships. Deep and loving relationships are considered an example of God’s love being realised on earth.

It also helped them gain a deeper understanding of what our family went through the last few years with my mother’s recurring cancer. I cannot remember the details of the original prognosis, but thanks to surgery and fancy technology (CAT scans, MRI scans, and lately PET scans — PET scans utilise positrons, which are the antimatter equivalent of electrons), we have already had more years with her than we would have, time for which we are very grateful. It feels like borrowed time, but following every surgery, we remain hopeful that the scans will remain clear.

On this backdrop, aunt/uncle/cousins came to support us with inspiration, prayer, salving with oil, and communion (bread and wine/Grapetiser).

My uncle referred to the story of Job. He mentioned he had a hard time with understanding that book, but read a piece out of Angus Buchan’s daily devotional book titled “a Mustard seed”. It reads as follows:

29 June [Ed: Remarkable, isn’t it! Today is 29 June…]

A friend

– Job 19:25 –
“For I know that my redeemer lives …”

JOB is possibly one of the greatest men of faith in the whole Bible. We say that because when Job was sorely tempted by the evil one, he did not respond by denying God but instead remained faithful to Him. Job has become one of my heroes in the Bible.

Here in chapter 19, Job recounts the tremendous trials and tests that he’s going through. He says that his brothers have been removed from him, his acquaintances have been completely estranged from him, his relatives have failed him and his close friends have forgotten him. He says that even those who dwell in his house, and his servants, have counted him as a stranger; that he is an alien in their sight. He says that even young children despise him. His close friends abhor him, and those whom he loves have turned against him. He cries out desperately, “Have pity on me, have pity on me, oh you my friends!” It appears that everyone rejected him. Yet, in the midst of all this desertion, he can say, at the top of his voice, “For I know that my Redeemer lives and that He shall stand at last on the earth” (v 25). What faith!

Friend, as you are reading this, maybe you’re going through a similar ordeal today? Maybe you are feeling rejected by those who are close to you? Maybe you’re going through hard times — and at this stage it just seems like everything is compacting against you? The world loves a winner but has no time for a loser.

I encourage you today by faith to look at the Book of Job, at a man who refused to deny the Lord, even in his time of greatest testing. The good news is that in fact the Lord did not desert him, or turn His back on him. If you look at the last chapter of Job, you will see that the Lord blessed Job in his latter days with more than he had at the beginning. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, one thousand yoke of oxen, and one thousand female donkeys (Job 42:12).

He also had seven more sons and three more daughters, who were the most beautiful women in the land. Job lived to a hundred and forty years of age and saw his children and grandchildren for four generations. Job 42:17 says, “So Job died, being old and full of days.”

Is this a violation of copyright, sharing one Angus Buchan daily devotional with the world? I have a commentary/critique on it below, so I hope it falls under fair use? Add to that Angus Buchan’s words that he does not hold his mass-gatherings for financial gain. If he really means that, I assume he must include his books, because that is how travelling sermon-givers typically get paid for their time. (I know this all too well from observing creationism seminars.) Angus finds funds by praying, he said on Carte Blanche (TV) recently. The point being: if there is a copyright problem, I hope someone will let me know. In the meantime, these are my beliefs under which I hope to claim “fair use”.

Following that piece, my aunt also shared her views, with some inspirational verses from the Bible. Ditto for some of my cousins. I cannot remember all the details. My heart started beating faster when I realised I might be offered an opportunity to make a contribution, on top of my hands shaking for some time already (these are emotional times). I felt Job was a brilliant story in this context, though I do have a slightly different take on Job and on the context. On first offering of an opportunity to contribute, I was silent for some time before deciding to decline. This gathering is primarily for my mother, and for my aunt/uncle/cousins — the silence was while I was weighing up whether I had anything to contribute that would be of help to them, at this time in this context.

My stepfather spoke next, he mentioned that all of us have been on difficult journeys in our religious lives lately, and find ourselves in diverse places with regards to faith and doubt. He mentioned that some of us have trouble believing in the same way they do, and that we appreciate their support. His contribution reminded me of a discussion in the back of the bus some years ago, I might write about that some time.

While he was talking, sensing that he was in part sketching out a position with reference to me, I reconsidered making a contribution. I wanted to talk about the Book of Job, and what it meant to me, and how relevant I think it can be in such situations. I started speaking… a little hesitantly… but then I again reconsidered and said now is not the time to talk about it. And I really don’t think it was, my take on Job was for my mother. I could share it with my mother later, no need to explain it to everyone there and then. Maybe later… or maybe this blog post…

My sister talked about how special it was to have everyone together like this, being thankful for the support.

From there we went over into prayer, led by my uncle, but also handing over to others who would like to do some praying: uncle/aunt/cousins. I cannot remember all the details, and I also don’t necessarily remember what was in the prayer and what was in the “normal talking”, but it matters not. They prayed for my mother’s cancer, and talked about how Jesus died on the cross to defeat “Satan and cancer”, the blood of Jesus is enough for all of that. They prayed that the blood of Jesus will be on the hands of the surgeons to help them with the surgery.

Prayer for healing or defeat of the cancer was handled delicately enough, because in the end God’s will knows best. The prayer thanked God for that which God will do, either way, because it will all be for the best for those that believe, according to God’s plan.

And the prayer claimed the biggest sin of all is unbelief. And that we confess our unbelief. In the prayer we had some silent time in order for each of us to privately confess our respective unbelief to God and so let it go.

There was prayer suggesting that due to God’s nature (holiness), God/Holy spirit and Satan/cancer cannot inhabit the same body… in the prayer by different people, some differences in background and religious culture could be recognised.

And there was more, but I cannot remember it all. After the prayer, we had bread and wine/Grapetiser, symbolic of Jesus’ body and blood, used to remind us of Jesus. This went with more prayer.

After explaining the traditions of ritual cleansing in ancient Israel, where they used olive oil, drunk for internal cleansing or applied to dry skin (desert people), and commenting that it may be a little weird for people from the more traditional South African Dutch-Reformed tradition (strong Calvinistic influence), and explaining that it was a symbolic act (and not using olive oil), some oil was used for salving my mother. (A touch to the forehead and knees, etc.)

When all of this was over, a little over an hour in all, “secular” conversation returned. In the house, at least. Some people went outside, I wouldn’t know what they discussed. The conversation turned to my job, as I’m heading to Zurich, Switzerland, having survived many rounds of gruelling interviews and offered a job I couldn’t refuse. It was quite an animated and relaxed conversation, words flowing easily from my mouth, in stark contrast to my hesitance during the “sharing” session. No words to weigh, no decisions to make as to what would be useful or edifying (a favourite Shofarian word, if I recall correctly).

Take Two

How many people noticed emotional ambiguity in the previous section?

After some more conversation, many thanks and appreciations for their being there, I had visited my cottage to fetch my Marcus Borg book, Reading the Bible Again, for the First Time (amazon, kalahari) which contains a wonderful 10 pages on the book of Job. I was still emotional, it generally takes some time to calm down. Sometimes it is necessary to let some of it out before peace and calm can be found. I let off some steam when our guests had left, expressing my feelings, explaining my understanding of Job and talking to my mother to get a feel for her experience of the prayer.

Now many of my readers are not religious. Some would have trouble understanding the sincere care and love expressed in this family get-together. For such reasons, these things are typically best not shared with strangers, especially not over the wild internet. I’m therefore placing very much hope into the following attempt at explaining the beauty and sincerity and care of this gathering, may it be adequate to aid understanding:

We started with the story of Job, I thought that was perfect. The story of Job is what I held onto throughout, and is what I use as response below. But I do not share Angus Buchan’s interpretation. More on that below. Angus Buchan turns the story of Job into an example of conventional wisdom, making it an inspirational story of hope. It is a daily devotional about positive thinking: keep thinking positive, and things will go well. Recognise this conventional wisdom in modern newage: The Secret and What The Bleep Do We Know? Recognise it in Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, that with the right attitude and commitment, you can make it.

These are the words of people aiming to comfort others going through a rough and testing time, encouraging them to hold onto hope. To not give up, to not give in to nihilism and despair. It is the hopeful message “all will go well”, just hold onto positive attitudes. I appreciate this contribution, I believe positivity in patients experiencing disease is very useful and effective. I believe (on anecdotal evidence) that a positive mind-frame and eagerness to live can speed recovery. I have heard more than enough stories about how some people just give up, and then deteriorate from there.

Next the focus on Jesus dying on the cross. The ultimate sacrifice, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement for sin, the act that pays all debts. I usually have a somewhat different emphasis on the crucifixion story, but let’s stay with the substitutionary atonement for a moment. Look at it from the context of the tradition out of which Christianity was born. Sin, or “missing the mark”, was considered an act that brought a gap between the sinner and God, i.e. the act of sinning leads to negative consequences for which there must be atoned. This is again a case of conventional wisdom, found in many traditions. In the east, it is found in the concept of Karma. In our secular judicial system, the strongest form of this concept is found in the philosophy of retributive justice. (That is, an eye-for-an-eye, let the punishment fit the crime justice, irrespective of whether the punishment results in any benefit for society. Contrasting aims would be deterrence/prevention, rehabilitation, or even restorative justice.)

Into this conventional wisdom, comes the subversive teachings of Jesus. And the ultimate unfairness of his death: a demonstration of the ultimate love, a standing up against the religious oppressors, a purveyor of good, healing, miracles, and he dies in the most terrible fashion available at the time. In this narrative, the early Christians find their liberation from the tyranny of conventional sacrificial atonement, the escape from the belief of “equal trade” in all things Karma. In this death of He-Who-Is-Considered-Sinless, they find the ultimate sacrifice to pay all debts. They assign the meaning of the lamb of God, drawing from the story of Abraham and Isaac.

In the context of illness and cancer, the traditional, conventional understanding and belief could suggest the disease may be the punishment for sin, for a wrong committed. It could suggest some substitutionary sacrifice needs to be done to atone for the evil, and following that, healing may occur. The belief or doctrine of the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus breaks this cycle, recognising that no more sacrifices need to be made. By the blood of Jesus, the early Christians find an explanation and an anti-dote to the sacrificial tradition.

The blood of Jesus on the hands of the surgeons? Apart from the horrifying image that might conjure up, this was also meant in the sense of sincere hope for recovery, metaphorically performing the symbolic anointing of the surgeon’s hands, hoping and wishing that they may be stable and cut true. May they be good. May they cut with divine precision, the divine as the metaphor for the ultimate good. This pedestal-placing and worshipping of the blood of Jesus is something that resonates with my memories of Shofar’s teachings.

Next, what ever happens, will be for the best of those that believe, and according to God’s plan. This belief is essentially about accepting that which life (or God) throws your way. This belief brings with it much happiness, if it is successfully maintained. It is the acceptance of that which cannot be changed, and finding the best in it. I see it at work in Shofarian decision making: it results in acceptance of their decisions, which they consider to be divinely guided, and hence not to be doubted. Non-theistically, it can sometimes be a challenge to make peace with a decision, if all responsibility for it is borne by the individual. If anything goes wrong, doubt could make the individual blame him- or herself for making the wrong choice. The essential belief is then this: making peace with the decisions that have been made, and recognising and looking for the best in whatever comes from it. Again, the power of positive thinking and optimism.

And now… the biggest sin of all: unbelief. This claim sends shivers up and down the spines of many a non-theist, resonating with bad experiences of fundies sending them to hell for having been blessed with inquisitive minds. That is totally missing the point of this belief. Here is what it really means: the biggest sin of all is giving up on life or beauty or existence or hope. Losing your belief in the value of your life. Giving up. The biggest sin, i.e. the biggest shame, shame in missing the point and beauty of life, is getting yourself stuck in a quagmire of self-doubt, leading into a downward spiral of depression. Shame in the sense of wasted potential, lost beauty, shattered dreams. Naturally, it does happen, because we are only human. At these times we need a helping hand, to find our feet again.

So unbelief then, the biggest sin. Let go of the self-loathing and self-doubt, and embrace a full life, as full and abundant as it can be. In the words of the Gospel of John’s description of Jesus’ purpose: “I’ve come that they might have life and have it abundantly.” In the words of the Vulcans on first contact: “Live long and prosper!” (According to a Wikipedia Trivia section, inspired by Jewish traditions. [permanent link to particular version, in case it changes].) Also captured in the concept of Shalom. Something worth believing in. And it has nothing to do with supernaturalism or superstitious beliefs.

The incompatibility of God/Holy Spirit and Satan/cancer living in the same body? Coming from the same source as the blood-on-surgeon’s-hands, this sounds to me like its origins might be Shofar’s doctrines on demonology. I wonder if it might be found in Shofar’s later Foundations series in particular, those that I may not attend for being unable to sign their membership form. I have nothing to say about this in this section, I’ll come back to it in the next.

Nearly done, with this section… The Eucharist, the sacrament to the sacred, the breaking of bread and the drinking of wine, is a truly beautiful tradition at its conception. It was about bringing people together, in their diversity, in their “unclean” states, and having a meal together. The meal was something with particular significance in that culture. The Pharisees wouldn’t be caught dead breaking bread with prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritans [or homosexuals]. They considered a certain portion of the population to be “unclean”. Jesus taught a unifying message that goes beyond the tribe, beyond genetic and tribal ties, unifying humanity by inviting the social outcasts to join in. This tradition also served as reminder to the early Christians, a reminder of Jesus, for he would not always be with them. A reminder of their Rabbi and his teachings, the unifying teachings of compassion and empathy, they are all, together, members of the same body. The body of humanity, metaphorically, the body of Christ. Unity in genetic, tribal, historical and cultural diversity: unity through shared values of love and compassion/empathy. And so we were brought together, two families, around the signs of the bread and wine, inspired by caring and compassion.

Lastly, ritualistic salving, with oil, another tradition/ritual in aid of achieving a centred, positive frame of mind, a good outlook.

With all of that, with that understanding, I appreciate what my aunt/uncle/cousins came to do for us. I love them for their concern and contribution, and I sincerely thank them from my heart.

Preparations for Take Three — The Real Story of Job

The previous section should hopefully have rocked the boat for some of the non-theists, in that it was probably unexpected — it doesn’t come easy, takes patience. It is an explanation of how I build my bridge. Naturally, it also ends up rocking the boat for fundies that have a strong dislike of what they feel my claims are implying, they find the bridge threatening. Their world-view and fundamentalism is often characterised by rejection of any kind of bridge. But rejection of these bridges come from both sides as well… Either way, I hope it went down well enough, because that section was friendly and positive.

This section explores the flip side… the dangers, the misunderstandings, the death they inadvertently dish out without even realising it (I hope, or I choose to believe). This section is the story not of what they said or what they meant to say, but of what is heard, by the outsider, by the outcast, by the fringe… This is the story of Job, the story of the depth in the Bible: this is the story of the dialogue and conflict within Israel’s wisdom tradition, yes, the conflict within the Bible. It is in this conflict that the value and truth in the Bible starts shining. In this conflict, that the theologians and the Rabbis learn all about, lies a truth that some prefer not to see, for they want to hold on to their conventional wisdom. They fear the prophets, and decide that the prophetic words are talking about other people.

  • For the non-theists, I suggest approaching this section with an understanding of God in Paul Tillich‘s terms: the Ground of Being. Or as Terry Eagleton puts it, sounding somewhat similar:

    “For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.”

    Parse that well, and you could detect a hint of something a little pantheistic in the idea. But beware of labels: they’re modernistic. 😉 God is not a modernistic label-able concept. God is then what it means to actually exist, and “walking your life with God” is then a metaphor for living a full and worthwhile life. I hope this helps you understand what’s going on here…

    And I hope the theists don’t crucify me for de-personification.

Angus Buchan presents conventional wisdom. Such wisdom is found in the book of Proverbs. The books of Ecclesiastes and Job are an example of the alternative voice of Israel’s wisdom. They speak with a voice that challenges the conventional. Job has a brief prose prologue (the first two chapters) and concludes with an even briefer prose epilogue (42.7-17). In the middle is almost forty chapters in the form of poetry. To borrow Marcus Borg’s words — and I do so liberally throughout the rest of my writing about Job, please get your hands on Reading the Bible Again, for the First Time (recommended for tolerant and curious people of all types: the intolerant need not apply), then you can read his 10-page treatment on it, unedited — I’m probably committing large-scale plagiarism here:

…, the prologue and the book have another purpose: it signals the author’s probing of conventional wisdom. Why be religious? Why take God seriously? Is it because “there’s something in it for me”?

That is the answer of conventional religious wisdom, ancient and modern, Jewish and Christian, and as found in other religions. Follow *this* way — it will take you to a good place, whether internally or externally, whether in this life or the next. Its Christian forms are many: believe in God and Jesus and you’ll go to heaven, or you’ll prosper, or you’ll have peace of mind, or you’ll be fulfilled. All of these turn taking God seriously into a means to some other end. But Satan’s question leads us to reflect on the central issue raised by the prologue: Is there such a thing as religion unmotivated by self-interest? What would it mean to take God seriously not as a *means*, but as the ultimate *end*?

How does Angus Buchan end up with a conventional wisdom understanding of an alternative wisdom book?

OK, stepping back for a moment: we’re talking about the story of Job, and about Satan and “his question”, and not everyone knows the story. So first some context. The book of Job was probably written during the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE, or shortly thereafter. Borg, on the prologue:

The prologue introduces the character Job and the situation that led to his predicament. The first verse reminds us of the “once upon a time” of folktales about long ago and far away: “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.”

Job lives the dream, blessed with many children and prosperity. He was “blameless and upright, feared God and turned away from evil.” That means he was a “paragon of wisdom and virtue”, living a good and moral life according to all principles of conventional wisdom. Wise. The prologue describes his possessions, in cattle and servants. Back to Borg:

With that groundwork laid, the prologue then turns from earth to heaven, where the dramatic action of the book is set in motion. There, we are told, a meeting is held between the heavenly beings and God. Among them is a figure called “Satan” — not yet the evil power opposed to God of later Jewish and Christian tradition, but a servant of God whose task is patrolling the earth as a kind of espionage agent.

In a conversation between God and Satan, God brags about his righteous servant Job. Satan is unimpressed, pointing out that it is easy for Job to be faithful (to the “good” life), when his existence is safe and prosperous. Satan wonders if Job would still be faithful if things weren’t so easy for him, so he challenges God to a wager.

Take away everything Job has, he says, and see how faithful Job is then. God agrees, and the wager is on.

  • A quick note to the non-theists: put aside your standard grievances for a while, and read “religion” in terms of “living a good, moral life”, an ethical way of life. It has nothing to do with the supernatural and superstitions. Read that “Is there such a thing as religion unmotivated by self-interest?” as a question of whether there is such a thing as living a good, honest, moral life, when it isn’t motivated solely by self-interest? A good deed not motivated by a returned favour or merely for a survival benefit…

    Yes, throwing out the conventional definitions and running with these, you may discover that you are suddenly the religious believers, possibly faithful to the Good life (“to God”) despite a lack of any ultimate reward, without expecting anything good to come your way as pay-off. Don’t worry, I have not “converted” you, I’m just requesting that you bear with this new understanding of the labels for a moment. For just this post. For the purpose of understanding the culture, and how Job brings to bear in Take Three.

With God’s permission, Satan takes away Job’s blessedness, in two stages. First his possessions and family… livestock stolen or destroyed, servants killed, and all his children die as a house collapses on them. With God’s permission. But Job stays true to the “good” life, the moral, the ethical. “Dedicated and faithful to God.” In the second stage, Satan goes after Job’s own body. Still with God’s permission. He develops “loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.” And yet, he remains faithful, he still maintains the “good life”.

This is all in the prologue, the first two chapters, setting the scene for Job’s suffering, unrelated to anything he did, due to transactions “above his head”, out of his control.

Then comes the actual body of the book: nearly forty chapters of dialogue between Job and his “comforters”, in the form of poetry. It contains Job expressing his intense torment, such suffering that he curses the day he was born. He accuses God of giving him no rest. And through it all, he cannot understand why he is suffering. He had done nothing to deserve this, and accuses God of destroying both “the blameless and the wicked”. He shouts out that life, the universe, is not fair, and he wants answers. He wants explanations…

Job’s “friends” and comforters insist he must have done something wrong. They defend the honour of God by claiming God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. They think Job is suffering divine discipline and suggest he should seek God. Why else would he be suffering? Conventional wisdom, secular style: “If your life’s not going right, it’s your fault; if your life’s not going right, fix it!”

Not surprisingly, Job does not find much comfort in all of this, calling his friends “worthless physicians” and “miserable comforters”. About their wisdom and counsel he says: “Your maxims are proverbs of ashes.” He recognises the ultimate emptiness in their advice. Borg:

They also demonstrate the peril of quoting all parts of the Bible as if they reflect God’s point of view. According to the book of Job, what Job’s friends say at considerable length reflects a point of view that not only the character of Job and the author reject, but that God also rejects (explicitly in Job 42v7). Conventional wisdom, whether biblical or secular, offers an inadequate explanation of suffering; it fails to account for the way the world is ordered.

And then the story starts building up to its climax… Throughout, Job expressed a strong desire to meet God face-to-face, wanting to confront God with the unfairness of his suffering. He has his questions, he wants answers to them. His desire is eventually granted, but the meeting is very different from what he expected…

The last five chapters contain God’s answer to Job, expressed in the most remarkable nature poetry in the Hebrew Bible. God answers Job “out of the whirlwind.” In a series of rhetorical questions, God displays the wonders of creation to Job: the foundations of the earth, the sea, the dwelling place of light, the storehouses of snow and hail, the constellations, clouds and rain and lightning, lions, mountain goats, deer, the wild ass and wild ox, the ostrich, the war horse, the hawk and the eagle, and ultimately the mythological sea monsters of Behemoth and Leviathan. The language is marvelous, the display magnificent.

Rather than answering Job’s questions, the display stuns Job into smallness and silence — it is a realisation of his place in it all: a tiny little speck of existence in the greater scheme of the universe and the great beyond. Can you imagine a modern rewrite of Job, featuring the stars and galaxies, the billions of years of universal history, the earth-shaking realisation of what our lives are about? Job concludes:

I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth; I have spoken once,
        and I will not answer;
        twice, but will proceed no further.

Then Job does speak to God one more time. His words are the climax of the book:

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
        but now my eye sees you.

Borg goes on to explain the concept of seeing God, “the classical language of the mystical experience: an intense, immediate experience of the sacred.” Borg explains how Job’s experiences lead him to a point where conventional wisdom no longer made sense to him, despite “fervent repetition of it by his well-intentioned friends.” He refused to give in under that pressure.

But his rejection of conventional wisdom called everything he had once believed into question. Now, at the end of the book, he sees God — he experiences the sacred. In the words of an older translation, “But now my eye beholds you. Job’s experience of God gave him no new answers or explanations for the problem of suffering. But his experience convinced him that God was real in spite of the human inability to see fairness in the world.

His experience of God changed him: “Therefore I melt into nothingness, and repent in dust and ashes,” he said. As his old construction of the world (and himself) melted away, he “repented” — that is, he changed.

This mystical experience is then to Borg what first hand religion is about. Borg believes that the author of the book of Job must have had such an experience in order to be able to write the climax the way he did. (Of course, reading the Bible like the typical person does, one misses this beauty… it requires an awareness of the context, and an entering into the story, that I think requires some Biblical scholarship and an understanding of the culture.)

  • This last bit is expressed in strongly theistic language. The non-theists might roll their eyes at this conclusion to the book.

    I didn’t want to write about this in this post, but now that it has taken me there, I will do so for the non-theists: I would like to draw some parallels to my own experience towards the end of last month. (The Last Straw Drove the Camel Mad.) I have described that as my “meeting with God”: that is how I describe it if I enter into the experience with a theistic world-view and think and talk in Biblical, theistic language. I have also pointed out the potential psychological descriptions of it, a “brief psychotic episode”. In philosophical terms, I sometimes go with “a nihilistic experience”: a tangible experience of nihilism, the beginning and end of it all, a sense of everything and nothing, an alpha and an omega, an infinity looping back on itself. A collapse of reality? Derealization, a blurring of fiction and reality. I cannot really describe it, and sometimes I think trying to do so is doing it an injustice. The point is, as I’m sure you know, the way such experiences are expressed and interpreted depends significantly on the world-view or “language” used to approach it. And I felt it coming, maybe I desired it.

    It felt like a moment of rebirth, of self-reinvention. Now I sometimes go with the label “post-nihilist”, as indication not of a particular philosophy, but rather of having seen nihilism. Whatever it was that I “saw”. It took me a while to stabilise, in a philosophical sense as well as in life-stance sense, but I return with a renewed commitment to my values, to what I believe to be the “good life”. That is what I have, that is all I have. That is where I find value in my existence. Thus: I return with a renewed faith in my God. In my conception and understanding of the alpha and the omega. A commitment not dependent upon any supernatural miracles, not dependent upon any ultimate reward, I care not one iota about ideas of life-after-death, I care but for living an eternal life in this life. I care about hell and heaven here on earth. The only miracle I need to convince me of this, is the very fact of my own existence.

    Thus then a renewed commitment to my core values, to my beliefs about ethics and morality. Many of my core values were demonstrated to me in the narratives about a remarkable carpenter from Nazareth. That is the tradition from which I came. It was in the process of chasing after that carpenter that I found myself here. By sheer experience, I feel granted a renewed insight or appreciation for the wisdom in various religious traditions. And I feel I grasp something of the forces that keep people isolated in their fundamentalist religions built on conventional wisdom, because the loss of all that is held dear and secure, the experience of calling everything you had once believed into question, “the utter terror that is found in a meeting with God”, with accepting the nature of this reality and our place in it, can be more frightening and debilitating than you realise, if you haven’t been through it yourself.

    And my journey has now only just begun, this was but another rebirth. The challenges remain the same, as does the nature of man. My vices are still my vices, my pride as big a threat as always. (Noting that there are different kinds of pride, good and bad.) But I really digress, and should get back to what this post was supposed to be about. I hope that gave the non-theist some appreciation or understanding of what I believe Job’s meeting with God was about.

Take Three

So how does Angus Buchan manage to read conventional wisdom into Job?

Angus is a farmer, not a trained theologian. He was apparently blessed with prosperity, which confirmed for him his understanding of conventional wisdom. He had his faith, he prayed, and he discovered he was blessed. Conventional wisdom worked for him. From this perspective, he approaches Job with a particular expectation. Like any literalist, he expects the Bible to speak with a unanimous voice confirming his preconceived expectations. Watch how he accomplishes this in his daily devotional…

We say that because when Job was sorely tempted by the evil one, he did not respond by denying God but instead remained faithful to Him.

The personified “evil one” of contemporary Christianity features, of course. And it becomes a nice and cushy “Job was tempted by the evil one”, rather than a facing of hard reality: God permitted the theft and destruction of his livestock, the death of his family, and all the afflictions he had to survive. This bit is not about the nature of God, but rather about things out of human control, happening above our heads. An expression of fate handed down from the gods. And this was the prologue.

From there, Angus pulls out a piece from chapter 19, demonstrating Job’s trials and tribulations and his steadfast grip on faith. On top of that, Angus then launches into a standard lecture on conventional wisdom: hold onto your faith and the best for you shall prevail. He closes the deal by looking for a supposed pay-off, found by jumping straight to the brief epilogue, grabbing on with all his mighty might to the good that happened towards the end of his life. The “happy ever after” ending, the classic ending to the “once upon a time” story. That is not where the message of such tales is to be found! It almost makes you wish the author(s) of the book of Job had left out that happily-ever-after ending. (It may be multiple authors: there isn’t any scholarly consensus about the relationship between the prose prologue and the poetic body, and some scholars believe even the poetic body contains the work of more than one author). Angus neglects to mention what Job’s friends’ advice was, and so also does not mention what it was that God explicitly rejected.

The result is that a challenging book, challenging the conventional wisdom traditions, is packaged nicely into a sweet story of conventional wisdom, on two pages of a daily devotional… and so Angus helps his fans avoid having to grapple with the real truth in the book of Job. He disarms the biggest threat to his theology: a deep reading of the Bible, presenting the conflicted nature of the wisdom tradition of Israel.

This, then, is why I express sincere and serious doubt about the untrained preacher/pastor. As well-meaning as they may be, as much as they may believe they are God’s chosen one to bring God’s message to the masses: if they have no clue what they’re talking about, I’m not going to listen. Instead I sit and fret about who the masses is listening to for supposed guidance…

My cousin had apparently done a study of Job. What understandings and conclusions came out of that study, I do not know, except for one tidbit that was shared in the feel-good family gathering: apparently Job’s trials and tribulations did not continue for as long as the book’s length makes you think. (Length: 42 chapters. Glancing at the prologue I conclude it sounds like one could squeeze the whole narrative into a fortnight, depending on the content of all the poetry.) Looking at the time that passes in the story is missing the point. Excuse my sarcasm for a second: Oh great, there’s a nice comforting thought. He only suffered for a short while. His livestock stolen or killed, all his children were killed… But hey, he didn’t suffer for long! And he had more children later, to replace the ones he lost, so what’s the problem?… erm…

Of course my aunt/uncle/cousin meant well. They were well-intentioned friends, coming to comfort us with conventional wisdom. Which sometimes works. And I appreciate that. The well-intentioned friend with conventional wisdom white-washes the rough and challenging bits of the Bible in an effort to inspire hope and positivity. But it is still a case of denialism.

Now you hopefully have some understanding for what was milling through my mind during the gathering, my thoughts on Job and its challenge to conventional wisdom, and Job’s friends’ inability to comfort him. With this understanding as backdrop, we look at the rest of the gathering and how it could be interpreted, even if it was not meant that way.

The prayer for healing… the supposed “test of faith”. There could be an interpretation of my aunt having survived her melanoma, having “passed the test”. Now my mother needs to pray and have faith, and if she has enough, she will also be healed. If not, well, she “fails the test” that her sister passed, her faith “not being good enough”… Classic misguided conventional wisdom. But everyone was aware of this danger, including my mother. In part because my mother explicitly pointed it out, in response to their words of support. She said she doesn’t want the pressure that their beliefs must be confirmed by her getting well. Of course, the classic problem of fundamentalist belief: Get well, and they claim supernatural credit that their way is the only way of being and living. Don’t get well, and they find some scapegoat. Someone or something was not good enough. Maybe… maybe it was because of unbelief!

So if the surgery was unsuccessful, it was because someone did not confess their unbelief to God in that moment we had? Is it maybe all Hugo’s fault, for reading liberal theology, embracing doubt as an important balance to faith, and entertaining the scientific and inquisitive mind he was blessed with? And then he propagated some of his supposed “unbelief” to his family, causing the lot of them to each perform a little bit of the “greatest sin imaginable”?

Yes, there are multiple interpretations of unbelief. I reaffirm what I wrote in Take Two, that is what I believe it is about. The rejection and suppression of critical thinking is then a side-effect of a deeper-lying and insipid form of unbelief: an overwhelming fear of the loss of good belief described in Take Two. The supernaturalist exhibits this deadly unbelief, requiring supernatural miracles in order to “prove” belief in the meaning and purpose in their lives. The creationists also: that form of unbelief leads them there.

Again, I confirm and point out that the family were sincere and meant well, but take a closer look at this:

There was prayer suggesting that due to God’s nature (holiness), God/Holy spirit and Satan/cancer cannot inhabit the same body

The obvious implication of this sick example of conventional wisdom: if the cancer stays, clearly God or the Holy Spirit isn’t with you… I cannot stress enough the importance of an awareness of the conflict between conventional wisdom and alternative wisdom. The balance and interplay is of the utmost importance.

With all the pressure and stress that can be caused by the expectations of people praying for your healing, I am not at all surprised when I hear of studies showing knowledge that people are praying for you can be detrimental to your health. In a study covering 1,800 people who underwent coronary bypass surgery at six different hospitals, patients who knew that others were praying for them fared worse than those who did not receive such spiritual support, or who did but were not aware of it.

The big unanswered question is why there was an excess of complications in patients who knew all those people were praying for them. The researchers admit they have “no clear explanation.” To find out, they say, “will require additional study.”

It could also have been merely statistical coincidence, but a 7 to 8% increase definitely raises eyebrows. My suggestion? Don’t tell someone you’re praying for them if you don’t know if they are religious, if you don’t know whether they will appreciate it. My mother is religious. She may appreciate knowing people are thinking of her and praying for her, though she doesn’t typically tell the world or write on the internet that she is having surgery for cancer.

This then my advice, if you want to give comforting words: “We’re thinking of you and your family”. “We’re keeping you in our thoughts.” “We’re keeping you in our prayers.” More than that starts getting risky: “We hope and pray that all will go well.” I have no problem with any of this, I have no problem with religious expressions of social and community support. I appreciate all of it, and I’m sure my mother and my family also appreciates it.

But if you add one ounce of stress and expectations on my mother’s already loaded shoulders, I curse you. I bite my thumb at thee!

Categories: Worldviews
Tags: · · ·

90 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Hugo // Jun 30, 2008 at 4:33 pm

    News through the grapevine: the surgery went well, she kept her kidney. Rumour has it the tumour was huge, can’t wrap your hand around it. So now it is back to hoping (or praying) that it stays away again, for as many years as possible.

    One friend and “spiritual colleague” of mine wrote these words:

    Ek glo dit sal goedgaan… in die sin dat ek dit graag wil glo, en dat, gegewe ewe kanse, ek daardie uitkomste sou verkies.

    Translated: “I believe it will go well… in the sense that I would like to believe that, and that, given equal chances, I’d prefer that outcome.”

    All about context: having a good friendship means I understand the context from where he comes with these words, and they really make me smile. I need to watch out that I’m not too biased towards being more appreciative of such weighed words than of a simple “I’m praying for you” from a religious friend. The latter may be equally sincere, expressed in simple words with an emotion of the inadequacy of words to express their feelings of concern and empathy.

    Think thrice before you post a stupid comment. Thanks.

  • 2 Hugo // Jun 30, 2008 at 4:52 pm

    Questions make for smart comments. I often think we should be asking more questions when we don’t understand one another, instead of straight disagreement.

    The biggest challenge then, is finding the right questions. I’m under the impression that many religious and wisdom traditions deal largely with what questions should be asked. We often ask all the “wrong” questions, in my opinion this is especially true for “fundies” of all sorts.

  • 3 Hugo // Jun 30, 2008 at 10:41 pm

    The question is, do I forward this story to the family in question? To my cousins? This is a very peaceable explanation of my take on things.

    They, as family, as far as I know, grew much closer together through their ordeal. And they do it in a strongly theistic manner. If one were to take a contradicting world-view, it may ruin family unity. So instead I remain silent and let them find their own ways through life.

    But they come to my home, and present their world-view to me, in my face. I can’t blame them, they do what they believe is best, and we have not talked about our differences. Maybe I owe it to them to present mine, that they know where I stand, rather than remain silent? Rather than repeating the whole thing some time in the future? Maybe I owe it to them to send this post their way?

    Traditional South African culture has an intensely strong belief in belief, with social pressure keeping people in line, or in the closet. They dare not utter their disagreement. In a modernistic culture, it is “this or that”, it is a conversion. In a post-modern culture, there would be acceptance of great diversity. In a modern culture, some may encourage the non-supernaturalists to “come out the closet” waving a new banner. In a post-modern culture, we’d encourage an emphasis on diversity and continuity between the world-views. We’d build bridges, and explain that we aren’t so different after all.

    Can’t we celebrate our differences while standing together in our agreements?

  • 4 Linda // Jul 1, 2008 at 5:21 am


    Wow! I think that was the king of all posts. I had to print it out to read it. 🙂 These are my initial thoughts:

    First of all, my heart goes out to you, your mom, and your family. I was glad to read that her surgery went well. I cannot offer you my prayers, as I don’t really “pray” in the traditional sense. But I do offer you my sincere thoughts and hope for her recovery.

    As far as Job, I completely agree with your interpretations. It does not make sense to me otherwise. So much of the scripture makes perfect sense when you look at it from the right perspective, doesn’t it?

  • 5 Kenneth Oberlander // Jul 1, 2008 at 10:13 am

    My deepest sympathies Hugo. I knew your mother was sick, but cancer…I hope it goes back into remission.

  • 6 Pieter // Jul 1, 2008 at 10:53 am

    So you think they made a few stabs at you? (the “unbelief” part). That would be a bit mean, but I
    suppose not really unexpected. The liberal theologist/humanist well known to tolerate different views, but sometimes one feels like drawing a line.

    Impressive post. I may read some things incorrectly though, apologies.

  • 7 Hugo // Jul 1, 2008 at 11:09 am

    No, they didn’t make a stab at me. They have been through a rough time themselves, and I’m sure have battled with their own kinds of “unbelief”.

    My uncle gave… I think five years of his life, to “make a difference”. It is quite a big commitment. Many of us have dreams of changing the world, but we don’t often make a huge commitment to it. I think that kind of commitment can bring some disillusionment when it doesn’t lead to some clear and easy to see noticeable “difference”. Each of our contributions are small…

    So the point being then: no, it wasn’t a stab at me. It was addressed to all of us. I really don’t think they know how I think, maybe it is unfair on them that I haven’t explained it to them? The point of “Take Three” was then to explain how it might come across. And of course the thoughts I share there are in part what went through my mind. But I am and was very aware that those thoughts are me “squeezing my foot into the shoe”, rather than an intentional “this shoe is meant for you”.

    They really mean well. They just mean well in the only way they know?

  • 8 Hugo // Jul 1, 2008 at 11:10 am

    Thanks Linda, thanks Kenneth.

  • 9 Marthelize // Jul 2, 2008 at 10:56 pm

    Two days later and I still can’t get my thoughts down in a post.

    I’m working on it…

  • 10 Ben-Jammin' // Jul 6, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    OT: since Jefferson was in your mini-blog:

  • 11 Hugo // Jul 6, 2008 at 4:18 pm

    Quote mining. Probably much of what I do as well, because there are some “quotes” (verses) that drive me to “stereotypical responses”. And it is exactly those stereotypical responses that I wish to avoid. Still figuring out how I will address those claims, which are exactly the kind that people will throw in my face.

    In fact, some verses are sent to my mother by her family, I’d think for support. But reading them, we really can’t figure out why they sent those to her. My paranoia always has me wonder which family members have read what I’ve written, and then wonder whether some of those verses were meant to reach my eyes. Heh… well, no comment on that. I’m trying to avoiding distractions from my main focus. 😉

  • 12 Hugo // Jul 6, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    Not classical quote mining, naturally. It’s not about making scientists say what they didn’t say, but it is much related, when you soften quotes like that. Pull out the sting. Get people used to the quote, with a certain connotation associated with it, then when they come across it with-sting later, it doesn’t bite as much.

    My connecting it with my own “quote mining” is a way to connect it back to this post and the thoughts I had, having just read some verses recently delivered.

  • 13 Marthelize // Jul 6, 2008 at 11:26 pm

    I’ve read and re-read the post a few times. Now I feel like I have something to say and I have no idea where to start.

    So I’ll do what I alwas do and start with some or other random thought and work my way from there.

    First, your detailled and extremely well thought through explanation of the story of Job was thorough and perhaps (or hopefully) for many reading it eye-opening. As I thought about my memories and understanding of the story, I realized that the ‘conventional wisdom’ is more widely applied than it probably should be. Even if I think back to Sunday school, I can’t quite remember being taught anything different from what Angus teaches.

    Of course, reading the Bible at a later stage in my life and studying it with the help of whatever book or daily devotional I might have been reading at the time allowed me to understand the “bigger picture”. But the simple. easy to digest take-home message is exactly that which Buchan preaches. If you just keep hold of your Faith, you’ll be fine. (and then the fine-print reads: If you’re NOT ok, then you’ve done something bad and you had better start praying)

    Now to get to your ‘experience’ that you described…

    I’m not quite sure if I should be too vocal about my personal opinion of what happened at your house when the family came to visit. I understand that they meant well, they came to help and that was their way of showing support. All they said and did was with love and I appreciate that (as I’m sure you did too).

    Having said that; I too have family with similiar ideas. They frustrate me to no end. NO END! (The main culprit in this family had the absolute audacity to actually tell a woman who works for them and suffers from high cholesterol that she would be healthy if she mended her wicked ways…Heaven help me…)
    I couldn’t help but get flashes of familiarity when you described some of what was said and did.

    Hugo, the way you wrote this post, it’s as if one could sense that you were upset but at the same time you seemed very calm. Maybe you just think things through a lot more than I do, especially before posting them. The post clearly reflects the emotion involved in this incident, but you don’t sound like a raving loon about it. Your explanations are methodical and logical and your descriptions of the events are personal and gives the reader a very intimate insight into the situation.

    I think you were very brave to share such a personal story with the world. I hope your readers (be they non-theist or other) understand where you’re coming from and what you’re trying to say.

    And just so we’re clear… good intentions aside… If that had been me and my family, I’d have had a nuclear meltdown right there in the living room.

  • 14 Hugo // Jul 6, 2008 at 11:47 pm

    Thanks Marthelize. I’m fine if this was personal, as in “me-personal”, but I’m worried that I’m dragging “other people’s personal” onto the internet. I hope they don’t mind.

    On remaining calm, well, I think having this outlet of writing/blogging about it, methodologically, does me well. In a kinda Karma-balance kind of way, this process is how/where I find my balance. Though it can also backfire. 😉

    With regards to explaining Job well, well, that was all Borg. And me shamelessly following his structure and borrowing his words. Just a slight bit of remixing and paraphrasing.

  • 15 Ben-Jammin' // Jul 7, 2008 at 2:42 am

    Even if I think back to Sunday school, I can’t quite remember being taught anything different from what Angus teaches.

    Same here.

  • 16 Marthelize // Jul 7, 2008 at 11:20 am

    Yeah..It a makes me wonder about the merits of sending children to Sunday school if all they get there is “conventional wisdom”.

    But it is a much more ‘digestable’ version. How much harm is there in teaching a young child a lesson in holding onto their faith ? As they get older and their faith and spirituality develop, they will learn about the “real” meaning.

    Unless they subscribe to the teachings of Buchan and the like. Which I think would be a tragedy since learning about theology from a farmer is like being taught dentistry by a mechanic…

  • 17 Hugo // Jul 7, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    /me sits back and watches, wondering when the atheists following this blog will chip in on that question. 😉

  • 18 Hugo // Jul 7, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    No, that’s just wrong, I’ll chip in.

    The problem the atheists have with that, which they call “moderate faith”, is that it is the “breeding ground” for fundamentalism. It is those that are recruited at a later age. The outspoken “evangelical” atheists, the “new atheist” publishing “movement”, wishes to dry up that pool of moderates, in order to get rid of the pool that feeds the fundies. Because fundies are dangerous.

    The “radical” branch of the “emerging church movement” approaches the problem from the other side, developing and evolving the religion to become one that is about a way of life, instead of a “knowledge” tradition (whereby “knowledge” may be the traditional/conservative/incorrect/fundie knowledge of young-earth creationism and science denialism).

    To borrow a quote from a comment on How Creationism Destroys Faith (

    I think much of the die-hard attitude towards creationism is that fundamentalists honestly don’t seem to have faith in God. They have complete and total faith in the Bible, and if one iota of it is not literally true, then their faith is shredded. For as much as they go on about it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship, they seem to be lacking the relationship part.

    The Bible, then, represents their “knowledge tradition”. The knowledge that they feel is important, and must be defended against all competing knowledge.

    But I digress…

    The question becomes: how can one send someone to Sunday school, if that means a greater risk of them becoming a fundie? I’ve touched on this in the post Children Church Beliefs at Stellenbosch Gemeente, and will come back to interesting developments in the emerging church. (For example, an omega course, the flip-side of the conservative/charismatic-emphasis “alpha course”. Lovely idea…)

  • 19 Hugo // Jul 7, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    Ah, sorry, spamming my own comments again. I just need to point out, there’s a bunch of nonsense “omega courses”. I’m referring to a development in one particular community (Peter Rollins’ Ikon):

    Anyway, enough babble from me.

  • 20 Ben-Jammin' // Jul 7, 2008 at 4:45 pm

    How much harm is there in teaching a young child a lesson in holding onto their faith ?

    Teaching a child that it is good to continue to trust someone who is treating you very badly?

    From my experience when I was a little kid, I remember very clearly learning the story of Abraham and Isaac. The Catholics hold Abraham up as a positive example; Abraham’s willingness to murder his own son on the orders of an authority figure is exemplary. I felt like I was surrounded by insane people. The story of Job had a similar effect, but much less so.

  • 21 Hugo // Jul 7, 2008 at 5:58 pm

    The atheist sits back and looks at this whole talk of “conventional wisdom” and the “alternative wisdom” that challenges conventional wisdom, and thinks, in the context of theism, “why don’t they just go for the simplest solution to the whole ‘paradox’?” Hmm…

    Miniblog features a post by Theo Geyser, head… uh… pastor? nay, preacher?… dunno, at Stellenbosch Gemeente. And his wife, Wilma, also in leadership at SG. Complications with their son, now born pre-maturely at 1.1kg. Picture pressure from your congregation with regards to conventional wisdom and “just believe”. Wife is afraid of “believing”, because what if she does believe, and they then lose the child? Supporting a congregation makes you all too aware.

    And then they talk about the very same kind of support some congregation members give: words of conventional wisdom, clichés like “just believe” or “you must be strong, the congregation is watching you”, not very comforting. He suggests these people didn’t receive a pastoral gift, and should rather contribute elsewhere. 😉 One day, three different women gave Wilma Hebrews 11 as supposed confirmation that faith will save their child. When they’re both aware that Hebrews 11 talks about “heroes of faith” that did not receive what was promised. If I understand Theo’s post correctly.

    Those that can read Afrikaans, Theo’s post is at:

    My thoughts are with them.

  • 22 Linda // Jul 7, 2008 at 6:35 pm


    I brought your discussion over to my blog to see if anyone there was up for discussing. Hope you don’t mind…

  • 23 Linda // Jul 7, 2008 at 6:37 pm

    hmm… typo in my info. sorry.

  • 24 Marthelize // Jul 7, 2008 at 8:42 pm

    Ben-jammin’ :
    Well… I’m starting to think I shouldnt have opened up the Sunday School can of worms. The story of Abraham and Isaac is one about blind obedience i suppose… and that “all’s well that ends well” or however you see it. I don’t think Sunday school or the children’s Bible is meant to be hard-core theology. It’s the “jist” of Bible stories, distilled down to something simple and easy for a child to understand. Later in life, in more senior biblestudy or wherever your church / spiritual life takes you, you learn to interpret it differently or question the way you were taught it as a child. It’s much the same with any form of learning. In school I was taught simple physics principals, but not to question them for their explanations were too complex for my then level of understanding. Later, at university level I was sometimes blatantly told that the reasoning we were taught in high school was wrong and then taught how it actually worked.

    Maybe Sunday school is a little bit of church propaganda? With happy endings and such. But you have to start somewhere…

  • 25 Hugo // Jul 8, 2008 at 12:24 am

    Hey, this whole blog is one big pit filled with worms. The most interesting tough question is how one deals with worms… what the best “recommended policies” would be that we should implement, when we start picking at each other’s worms. 😉 I still don’t have any good answer to that.

    Shall we go with “respect my worms and I’ll respect yours”? But… disrespect my world-view and I’ll defend it for all it is worth? I.e. shall we thus take a stance for open-minded acceptance of diversity in world-views, and from their simply work at mutual understanding?

    And when does acceptance, respect and understanding end? Maybe when it becomes anti-science, or anti-tolerance towards another world-view? Or shall I stop worrying about it and just continue with my path, hopefully demonstrating this blog’s approach? Maybe that. Try to fight any wild fires that break out on a case-by-case basis. (*ponder too much*).

  • 26 Hugo // Jul 8, 2008 at 12:27 am

    @Linda, while I can’t really speak for the others involved, they did trust my blog with their comments, and I’m all for raising awareness of such concerns, so I say, by all means, go for it!

  • 27 Ben-Jammin' // Jul 8, 2008 at 7:26 am

    It’s the “jist” of Bible stories, distilled down to something simple and easy for a child to understand.

    I couldn’t agree more. Hopefully the child has enough common sense to realize that doing what another wants you to do regardless of what it is they want you to do is not a good idea (if your friend jumped off a bridge, would you?) Hopefully the child has enough common sense to realize that thinking well of someone who is treating you poorly is just cooperating in your own abuse (pow! give me your lunch money, friend.) Hopefully the child rejects Christianity wholesale at the start.

  • 28 Marthèlize // Jul 8, 2008 at 7:51 am

    “Rejects Christianity wholesale at the start”??

    ouch. So much for the “respect” thing.

    Why do atheists and the like always feel the need to be so abrasive? Is it too difficult to disagree without trampling whole ideas or beliefs with an army tank?

    Sometimes they’re just the flip side of the fundies…

  • 29 Ben-Jammin' // Jul 8, 2008 at 8:30 am

    Well, every time I read one of the tortured deconversion stories people go through as adults I count myself lucky for rejecting Christianity wholesale as a child. Everytime I read about some spouse who deconverts as an adult and then has to spend years trying to save their marriage with their believing spouse I count myself lucky.

    Compared to the adult deconverts I’ve met, I’ve had to go through much less angst on the issue. The trade-off is that I’ve internalize much of the culture’s second-class status, and expect to be treated badly whereas adult deconverts expect to be treated as full human beings.

    What’s abrasive about rejecting Christianity wholesale at the start?

    Is it too difficult to disagree without trampling whole ideas or beliefs with an army tank?

    I give ideas or beliefs credence based on their support. No more, no less.

  • 30 Ben-Jammin' // Jul 8, 2008 at 9:02 am

    Douglas Adams says it about as well as it can be said, I think:

  • 31 Marthelize // Jul 8, 2008 at 9:52 am

    It’s not the rejecting Christianity wholesale that’s abrasive. It’s the way you do it. And I don’t really care if you find it a credible or believable cause, it’s just the loaded disrespect that I’ve become accustomed to in most atheists (am I stereotyping? Probably. Do I care? Not really.)

    Do I think Hindu or Muslim or any other religion’s principals are credible or valid? Nope. But I still respect them, maybe only because I can identify with the mere idea of believing in “something”.

    Douglas Adams is a genius. Doesn’t mean I agree with all he had to say.

    As for tortured deconversion stories, well my heart bleeds but that’s still a pretty broad sweep over a very large and diverse population of individuals, considering how much different denominations of Christianity differ (why there are so many denominations is a whole different topic :-P)

  • 32 Hugo // Jul 8, 2008 at 10:19 am

    It’s not the rejecting Christianity wholesale that’s abrasive. It’s the way you do it. And I don’t really care if you find it a credible or believable cause, it’s just the loaded disrespect that I’ve become accustomed to in most atheists

    “The way he does it”, refers to this sentence, I believe:

    Hopefully the child rejects Christianity wholesale at the start.

    Now the question I’ve been scratching my head over: he rejects Christianity wholesale, which you do not have a problem with. He thinks a child is better off without it, which I suspect you do not have a problem with. And then he is honestly sharing his thoughts, with the sentence above. Breaking it down, how else should he have shared his opinions? What words should he have chosen so as to come across less abrasive?

    Now his comments are experienced as “disrespectful”, the first thing I wonder is: is he being disrespectful, or is that just how it is experienced? Well, I think he is probably disrespectful, in that he does not respect “Christianity”. So my second thought is thinking about what precisely he disrespects. I don’t think he disrespects “general theist” (based on a particular email exchange). Does it help to realise what precisely he is disrespecting, and to realise that that does not necessarily apply to your perspectives? (Depending on what your perspectives are?)

    And so I scratch my head, because I’ve spoken to enough atheists that are rather frustrated by having to guard their every word for fear of saying something potentially abrasive… if you know what I mean. And I struggle to find a good reason or explanation for why comments like that is bad.

    When it comes to a future “arc” on this blog, I would like to keep abrasive opinions away, in an attempt to not chase away fundies, in an attempt to engage them. But… how do I encourage something like that? Ask people to rather “ask questions” than “make statements”? *ponder*… That’d basically be asking everyone to take part in an attempt at education with regards to how to think and how to ask questions. A cooperative project like we’re all coming together in a group to play with the fundies, sounds a bit like playground bullying. :-/ But I digress now.

    With regards to South African culture then: South Africa has a strong culture of belief, strong peer pressure as to take part in the shared mythos, for cultural unity. Or something like that. I sometimes get the impression that some people realise how hard it is to defend the mythos, but prefer to stick with it for various reasons, many of which I’d label “cultural”. Along this line of thought, I’d suspect that “abrasiveness” is experienced because the atheist’s challenge threatens cultural/tribal unity, when those that “wish to believe” are dislodged.

    This ties in well with some of the anthropological theories of the origins of religion that I have heard of… I need to get my hands on that paper. Essentially, a culture is built around the shared mythos, as a method/technique to encourage honesty and trust. Those not sharing in the mythos could not be trusted. From there a societal pressure to not upset the apple cart, and an agreement to not talk about it and not encourage doubt.

  • 33 Marthèlize // Jul 8, 2008 at 10:33 am

    Atheists aren’t the only ones who feel the need to ‘guard their every word’. If anything, in an increasingly atheist / agnostic world it’s those who are even remotely attached to a religion who have to be more guarded. (make a bold statement as an atheist and you might still be OK. Make one as a Christian and you’re bordering on being called a fundie. But that might just be my experience so if it’s not applicable here, i apologise)

    Right then… back to the question of where to draw the line with respecting / accepting / tolerating each other’s opinions…

    Can I still respect an opinion even if I think it’s wrong or misinformed? Probably. I’ll try. Why? I have no idea. Why should i even give an opinion that goes against what I think and believe a second thought? No idea. But whatever it is, I like to think it’s what seperates me from the fundies.

    I’m just wondering, if I can do it, why can’t they? As you said, you believe that his comments are disrespectful. Is it necessary?

    I suppose what I’m getting at is, can we disagree and yet still show mutual respect? Or is it every belief (or lack thereof) for itself and bugger the rest?

  • 34 Hugo // Jul 8, 2008 at 10:54 am

    Why should i even give an opinion that goes against what I think and believe a second thought? No idea.

    Because you’re a scientist? 😉 That’s what scientists do. It’s a mindset, and you probably won’t ever escape from it… the lot of a scientist.

    But whatever it is, I like to think it’s what seperates me from the fundies.

    Sounds good…

    As to the rest, I’m scratching my head, with not much to say. Yet. Hmmm… Ben, what do you think? (Ben’s probably sleeping. US timezone. We’ll have to wait for this afternoon to hear his thoughts.)

  • 35 Marthèlize // Jul 8, 2008 at 11:18 am

    Yeah… I’m sure he’ll have something to say.

    Question is, am I going to stick around to hear it?

    Probably not. I can only handle so much frustration in one day…

  • 36 Ben-Jammin' // Jul 8, 2008 at 5:41 pm

    Right then… back to the question of where to draw the line with respecting / accepting / tolerating each other’s opinions…

    What does it mean to respect / tolerate an opinion? I know what it means to respect / accept / tolerate a person. I know what it means to consider an opinion, or change an opinion, etc. I don’t know what it means to respect / tolerate an opinion, other than maybe putting it into a category of ‘exempt from criticism.’

    But whatever it is, I like to think it’s what seperates me from the fundies.

    Not the actual content of your opinions?

    Or is it every belief (or lack thereof) for itself and bugger the rest?

    Beliefs aren’t people. They have no rights, no feelings.

  • 37 Hugo // Jul 8, 2008 at 7:06 pm

    I’d love to hear Marthelize’s take on these thoughts. Dunno if she’ll be checking in here again soon. We all have rough weeks sometimes.

    My take I’ve already explained, and my thoughts that someone’s beliefs are indeed quite a part of who they are. It’s kinda like considering someone’s psychological issues a part of who they are. Some psychological diseases might have a source in the genetics, but there are some things that can be dealt with with therapy. E.g. we are determined by both our genes and our nurturing. And so I continue to hold an opinion that not everyone would agree with, and I understand how they feel as well.

    With regards to many people that grew up atheistic, by which I include you Ben, and Richard Dawkins, I understand full well that it is impossible to find a feeling of empathy with the religious mindset, way of life, worldview… it is simply impossible.

    Which is why I’m actually quite curious, maybe we should ask the bunch over at how they feel about this exact issue, and whether they consider beliefs a part of someone or something separate altogether. I get the feeling that their religious backgrounds give them a rather interesting and valuable viewpoint on “the divide”, that could be helpful in any attempts to bridge it.

    With regards to this:

    Not the actual content of your opinions?

    I’d be inclined to answer “exactly”. I’ve been trying to find out why people call Richard Dawkins a fundamentalist. Or rather, that which he is advocating… Irrespective of whether it is the “right label”. (I pointed this out in a previous post as well, caring more what people actually mean, than the right/wrong words they use.)

    The general impression seems to be how they go about it, rather than the actual claims. Dawkins becomes an authority figure, to which people with a desire for an authority figure can cling. This is very much the same as the fundamentalist mechanism in religious belief, where they hop from one authority figure to another.

    Food for thought?

  • 38 Ben-Jammin' // Jul 8, 2008 at 9:13 pm

    Dawkins becomes an authority figure, to which people with a desire for an authority figure can cling.

    Undoubtedly, this happens. The relevant question I would ask is whether Dawkins desires this state of affairs (outside of vanity.)

  • 39 Hugo // Jul 8, 2008 at 9:33 pm

    Probably not. Whether he’s vain or not, I’m sure he would just like more people to actually start thinking, and stop doing things because some other authority figure tells them to. And there is surely a big difference between someone claiming divine authority, and someone pointing at the scientific process as source of knowledge.

    Enough of my standard blabber. I often think I ought to try to be less “dominating” in the comments, let other people have their discussions without my “interfering” so often? Dunno…

  • 40 Marthelize // Jul 8, 2008 at 10:46 pm

    Hugo: I’d advise you to reconsider your “rough week” comment 😛

    BJ: It’s really not that difficult to understand. I unfortunately don’t know you well enough to know which of your opinions or whatever you hold dear is a good enough target to equate to but I’m sure there is something.

    So let’s play this game, since I am (for the moment) in the mood. Define respecting a person? Seriously now. What does it mean to respect a person? Does it mean respecting their physical and personal space? Is it respecting what they do or have achieved? Do you respect their power or clout (that probably is more fear than respect but whatever…)? If those are the criteria for respecting a person, then I’d have to logically assume that you don’t respect me.

    And logically I would not respect you.

    Then also you cannot have respect for anyone that you don’t know. Or am I taking my logic too far?

    And no. It’s not necessarily the content of my opinions that seperates my from the fundies. The content OBVIOUSLY is part of fundamentalism, but the way they go about outright and without consideration (or should I say “wholesale”) rejecting any differing idea is what really cements them as fundies. Which is why I wonder about closed-minded atheists and whether or not they’re just not another breed of fundie.

    Your last comment is just ridiculous. If you can’t recognise a metaphor then maybe I should quit while i’m ahead.

  • 41 Ben-Jammin' // Jul 8, 2008 at 11:33 pm

    Define respecting a person?

    Ummm….go re-read what I wrote. I asked you to explain what you meant in respecting an opinion.

  • 42 Marthelize // Jul 8, 2008 at 11:39 pm

    And I asked you a question.

  • 43 Hugo // Jul 8, 2008 at 11:43 pm


    Ben, I’d think Marthelize is trying to connect to your understanding of what it means to respect a person. I’d expect this is going in the direction of the idea that “respecting a person means respecting his opinions”…

    As such, I think I share Marthelize’s curiosity in looking for a good understanding/definition of what it means to “respect a person”.

  • 44 Marthelize // Jul 8, 2008 at 11:46 pm

    Yeah, Hugo is right.

    I don’t need to go re-read anything. I understood perfectly the first time. What I want is to know your definition of respecting a person. For two reasons:

    1) I want you to think about that and how a person’s opinions are connected to the individual

    and 2) maybe if you manage to make enough sense i’ll have a frame of reference to give you a satisfactory explanation of how to respect a person’s opinion.

    Although I never thought it would be such a complex concept.

  • 45 Ben-Jammin' // Jul 8, 2008 at 11:51 pm

    Two takes on the same topic – how much of religion is beliefs vs. how much is group identity:

    From Nica Lalli’s “Nothing: Something to Believe In”

    …In the second chapter of Nothing, for example, Ms. Lalli vividly describes a conversation she had as a first- grader when she called for a meeting with her parents in their Chicago home.

    “So, what are we?” she remembers anxiously asking her mother and father. “You know, what are we, what do we believe in? I mean, like, are we Catholic?”

    “Well, your father was Catholic. But he isn’t anymore,” her mother explained.

    Her mother, meanwhile, said she was Jewish, but did not practice Judaism.

    Ms. Lalli got the inspiration for her book’s title from her father’s follow-up answer:

    “‘We’re nothing.’ My father was looking right at me; he had a pleasant, friendly kind of expression. ‘Nothing,’ he said again.”

    When and if my daughters ask me, that is not how I will answer. My answer will be more like:

    “We are (our family name), people, living in the 21st century in the U.S. I am right-handed, tend to be liberal, a naturalist and humanist, a Cowboys fan, a Dodgers fan, a science fiction fan, and a myriad of other things. You are your own person, and your opinions are yours, not for me or anyone else to assign.”

  • 46 Marthelize // Jul 8, 2008 at 11:57 pm

    Cute story.
    And i agree. I really do. I think it’s a wonderful answer, that last one of yours.

    So then, if you are your own person, and your opinions are yours… then how can you seperate respecting a person and respecting their opinions?

    Thats why I was asking for a definition. And I’d like an answer.

    Another question. Perhaps the point I’m trying to get at: What does an opinion become when you seperate it from an individual?

  • 47 Ben-Jammin' // Jul 9, 2008 at 12:47 am

    So then, if you are your own person, and your opinions are yours… then how can you seperate respecting a person and respecting their opinions?

    To me, respecting a person means treating them as full human beings and equals, advocating for them to be treated as equals in the eyes of the law, things like that.

    For opinions, I can have apathy (Miami is the best NCAA football team), or ignorance (2^10.5 =1467; dunno without a calculator, but it should be close), or assent (2+2=4), or dissent (children who die before the age of reason will enjoy an eternity in heaven with no chance of an eternity in hell.)

  • 48 Linda // Jul 9, 2008 at 2:47 am

    Interesting discussion so far. However, I haven’t read anything on this thread that would exemplify disrespect.

    Disagreement does not mean disrespect. Stating a firm opinion on something does not show disrespect.

    After having had discussions on this subject in the recent past, I now agree with Bejamin that there is a clear difference between disrespecting a person and disrespecting their opinions or beliefs.

    If you were to call me irrational, yes, I would be offended. But if you were to say that a particular idea of mine is irrational and gave me logical and thought-out reasons why you think that, then it would be up for further investigation and discussion.

    In discussions where people have strong opposing views, things can and do often get heated. I think the trick is to keep the focus on the ideas and concepts that are discussed, rather than let it get personal.

    In order to have the freedom to be frank, it is necessary for all sides to understand that we shouldn’t take things too personally. As I see it, there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of passion in the discussion, as long as it continues to move toward a better understanding and does not close doors as a result.

    After all, you cannot have a good, healthy sporting match without getting a few bruises. 😉

  • 49 Marthèlize // Jul 9, 2008 at 7:55 am

    I just dont think we’re going to see eye to eye on the whole respecting the person vs respecting their ideas thing.

    For instance (and I know I’m using extreme examples here but it’s just to illustrate) treating me as an equal in the eyes of the law etc etc bla bla is great, that speaks to my basic human rights. But to me it says nothing about your respect for me as a person. Because if I have all kinds of opinions on politics and sport and religion and the like, and you simply and without giving it a second thought…”wholesale”… reject and ridicule every opinion I have, then you’re basically telling me “Ah well you’re technically a human, so there’s your human rights, I won’t trample on them, but you’re still an idiot”.

    I’m really running out of ideas about how to illustrate this better. You just seem to be missing my point, or disinterested in seeing it in the first place.

    One last attempt at an example:
    I think Americans are blind in their patriotism, ignorant about the world outside their own borders and led by their noses by their government into self-serving decisions that have more far-reaching consequences than they’ll ever understand. But I can respect the patriotism, their belief in their country (with or without problems. goodness knows south africa has a few idiots at the helm too…)
    I think baseball is the stupidest sport invented and i think football players are wusses, playing with all that protective gear. but i know that fans of both games love it, and i respect that. Not the sport, but the fan’s love for it. their OPINION.


    I’m out.

  • 50 Marthèlize // Jul 9, 2008 at 7:56 am

    btw, before i get crucified (or whatever it is you atheists do to people)
    those were just examples. not my personal opinions. so you don’t have to “respect” either 😛
    Only perhaps the idea i was trying to put across.

  • 51 Ben-Jammin' // Jul 9, 2008 at 8:30 am

    Because if I have all kinds of opinions on politics and sport and religion and the like, and you simply and without giving it a second thought…”wholesale”… reject and ridicule every opinion I have, then you’re basically telling me “Ah well you’re technically a human, so there’s your human rights, I won’t trample on them, but you’re still an idiot”.

    I would agree with the consequence of your ‘if.’ But I don’t reject every opinion another person has, and definitely not without giving the opinions consideration. I’d bet there are tons of opinions on which we would agree.

    How else do you arrive at a conclusion like “this person is an idiot” except by evaluating a person’s beliefs and how they arrive at them?

    I think Americans are blind in their patriotism, ignorant about the world outside their own borders and led by their noses by their government into self-serving decisions that have more far-reaching consequences than they’ll ever understand.

    I agree, and am sick about my country. Our ignorance, our arrogance, and our lack of empathy for non-Americans are shameful. We cause great harm.

    As for the sports examples: To me, it doesn’t feel like an attack or disrespect for anyone to describe sports I like, etc., in such a way.

  • 52 Marthèlize // Jul 9, 2008 at 8:37 am

    “But I don’t reject every opinion another person has, and definitely not without giving the opinions consideration. I’d bet there are tons of opinions on which we would agree”

    Agreed. Very much so. But then, by my definition, you are respecting my opinions. So if you’re definition differs and you don’t see it as respecting an opinion but respecting the person only, then we agree to disagree and understand where both sides are coming from.

    The sports example was just a random out-of-the-air type thing. Sports being something that most people get extremely worked up about etc. But if you’re not particularly worried about it, then all the better for you 😉 Just wanted to tie it into the opinion thing…since people have opinions on things they like and love etc.

    I’m tired now. And my day is just beginning. Eish.

  • 53 Hugo // Jul 9, 2008 at 9:28 am

    I wonder if we could tie this back to the phrase that started this discussion:

    Hopefully the child rejects Christianity wholesale at the start.

    In the context of:

    “But I don’t reject every opinion another person has, and definitely not without giving the opinions consideration. I’d bet there are tons of opinions on which we would agree”

    Agreed. Very much so. But then, by my definition, you are respecting my opinions. So if you’re definition differs and you don’t see it as respecting an opinion but respecting the person only, then we agree to disagree and understand where both sides are coming from.

    Ben has given that which he knows as “Christianity” a lot of consideration. There are certainly ideas within Christianity that he agrees with, but that would be ideas that are not unique or limited to Christianity.

    My suspicions/suggestion: Marthelize finds much value in her religious tradition, including many of the ideas in it and the way of life it encourages, many ideas being good ideas: e.g. those that are not unique or limited to Christianity, that Ben would agree with.

    So the experience of disrespect is where, exactly? In the “sweeping, wholesale dismissal”? Or what implied aspects of that statement by Ben are those that Marthelize felt were disrespectful of her opinions?

    Marthelize, might it be possible to explain your feelings around this? Maybe some examples of prior interactions with atheists with which Ben resonated? Though, this can start getting personal… creating potential for “disrespect”.

    Over at I also often see some thinking contemplative non-fundie Christians trying to explain that “not all Christians are like this or like that“.

    Or was the argument really more about the statement

    What does it mean to respect / tolerate an opinion? I know what it means to respect / accept / tolerate a person. I know what it means to consider an opinion, or change an opinion, etc. I don’t know what it means to respect / tolerate an opinion, other than maybe putting it into a category of ‘exempt from criticism.’

    …in which case it might be somewhat resolved?

  • 54 Marthèlize // Jul 9, 2008 at 9:47 am

    I think your latter statement is pretty accurate… the whole resolving of the ‘opinion’ debate.

    I do understand what BJ is saying, I know I differ from him and why, hopefully he also sees my side but I think we’ve said all their is to say.

    As for your referring back to the original statement; maybe it’s material for a whole new post… I’ve had my fair share of upsets with atheists but also with other Christians (as have you, Hugo). And as I understand it, BJ also has had his fair share of differences with Christians and the church or whatever the catalyst might have been (I’m guessing you have a “church” or at least church/religious – related background , considering your comments on Sunday school?)

    If we all start dumping our stories here, we’ll find some common ground, more differences and the original point of this post will be lost in the collective complaints 😛

    Time for a new topic maybe, Hugo? 😉

  • 55 Ben-Jammin' // Jul 9, 2008 at 6:45 pm

    And as I understand it, BJ also has had his fair share of differences with Christians and the church or whatever the catalyst might have been (I’m guessing you have a “church” or at least church/religious – related background , considering your comments on Sunday school?)

    I was raised Catholic but it didn’t ‘take.’ When I was really little, I thought the whole thing was some kind of social lip-service and that no one believed the stuff. It caused a lot of cognitive dissonance when I found out otherwise. I haven’t had any of the negative personal experiences that many report – no shunning, no continual pushy conversion attempts, no threatening with hell.

  • 56 Linda // Jul 9, 2008 at 9:58 pm

    The problem… well, I believe all conflicts that involve two or more differing or opposing views, stem from our inability to see the other perspectives.

    Please don’t take this the wrong way, but some of the comments here lead me to believe that you are under the impression that people generally have similar reactions given the same stimuli. Is this true?

    Physically, I would say that is very true for the most part. But cognitively, I’m not so sure.

    I think the frustration comes from not being able to realize that our brains can perceive information very differently. As a result, the other perspective will always seem “wrong” from our view.

  • 57 Ben-Jammin' // Jul 9, 2008 at 10:16 pm

    Please don’t take this the wrong way, but some of the comments here lead me to believe that you are under the impression that people generally have similar reactions given the same stimuli. Is this true?

    I don’t think so. Often I’m the one pointing out the cognitive differences between people – the limits of empathy. Searching for a past comment of mine here as an example (I used to post as ‘Ben’ until another ‘Ben’ showed up and it got confusing):
    (comment 9, if the link doesn’t load it correctly)

  • 58 Linda // Jul 9, 2008 at 10:49 pm

    Ah, Ben,

    What made you assume that I was referrng to you?

  • 59 Ben-Jammin' // Jul 9, 2008 at 11:13 pm

    What made you assume that I was referrng to you?

    You didn’t specify, so I assumed you were talking to the last post before yours. Not right?

  • 60 Marthelize // Jul 10, 2008 at 12:04 am

    I’m assuming you’re talking to me then?

    First I’d like to know what would lead you to ask me such a question?

    It’s a bit of a baseless conclusion to reach, I think, considering that the whole topic of conversation in the last few posts between BJ and myself were to our differing views despite (possible) similiar stimuli.

    And other people’s perspectives seeming “wrong” from our view has very little to do with how our brain functions on a physiological level (i.e. how we “perceive” information)

    Unless you’re a neurologist and I’m totally off base with that assumption…

  • 61 Linda // Jul 10, 2008 at 2:32 am

    …what would lead you to ask me such a question…
    It’s a bit of a baseless conclusion to reach… Unless you’re a neurologist…

    Hmmm…, this is getting to be somewhat of a hostile place…

    I was just pointing out things that I observe from where I sit. Please note that it is only one point of view, as it is regardless of who’s doing the talking.

    Again… please don’t take this personally… I’m only reporting what I observe:

    Marthelize, from my perspective, your very comment above seems to confirm my previous observation.

    It’s a bit of a baseless conclusion to reach, I think, considering that the whole topic of conversation in the last few posts between BJ and myself were to our differing views despite (possible) similiar stimuli.

    I was not necessarily referring to the differing views on the subject. I was more focused on the way you communicate, the level of emotion in the words written, the way the questions are formulated, what types of questions are asked, sarcastic undertones and defensiveness, if any, ect…

    What I did notice was that we all tend to assume many things from incomplete information. (I am not excluding myself here.)

    My only motive, not only here but in life in general, is to always learn something from every experience and every observation, and work toward a better understanding.

    I didn’t mean to offend or sound judgmental, and I apologize if it came across that way.

  • 62 Hugo // Jul 10, 2008 at 11:44 am

    I’ve read about some studies on email communication, and how people can misinterpret them… rather interesting, wonder if I should dig it up. (Or it wasn’t *that* interesting.) The lack of body-language and tone-of-voice cues make it very hard to determine the intended tone of the communication, meaning the interpretation is often influenced more by the expectations of the reader than the intentions of the writer. This is especially the case with for example reading sarcasm into things that are written. (Or then missing sarcasm/irony, which I’ve stupidly done too recently. 😛 Not here though.)

    So it would be interesting to see how much better/effective/correct such communication would be if it were face-to-face. (Even there, some people have ways that make them hard to understand when you don’t know them well, thinking of a particular person with a very dry sense of humour and extremely hard to notice his irony/jokes/etc. if you don’t know him well.)

  • 63 Linda // Jul 10, 2008 at 3:21 pm

    …very hard to determine the intended tone of the communication, meaning the interpretation is often influenced more by the expectations of the reader (or listener) than the intentions of the writer (or speaker).

    Eggggggsssactly, Hugo!! 🙂 (I inserted a couple of words in there – hope you don’t mind).

    Clear communication is the most difficult thing in human interactions, in my view. Not only that, mere words can be soooo lacking sometimes to convey the full picture of what’s going on in our thoughts.

    Isn’t that why there are so many interpretations of the Bible and even God? Then we argue about whose interpretations are the correct one. It escalates into hatred, war, and death. I really don’t think there is one right way that applies to everyone across the board. If we can learn to read, hear, and think for ourselves… and then also respect another’s point of view without judgment, would it then be possible to work toward a bigger picture? Would it be possible, then, to get closer to the real truth?

    Truth always speaks for itself. But in order to hear it, we have to turn the noise volume down and listen.

  • 64 Hugo // Jul 10, 2008 at 4:02 pm

    Isn’t that why there are so many interpretations of the Bible and even God?

    For example, that some interpret God as non-existing, and some as existing? 😀

    There is of course no doubt that there are differing opinions, and that the Bible does contain the opinions of pre-moderns, including what they thought was true of the Bible, when we do know things are different these days.

    But it is also quite likely that the ancients had a different approach to the text than the “enlightenment-era fact-seeker”. Karen Armstrong suggests the ancients did not think of their mythos’ “fact claims” as factual in the same sense as that which they see and touch in everyday life, whereas many people these days do. (I.e. the ancients did not have as literal an approach as contemporary fundamentalists). The suggestion is that it is later generations that became so focused on the “facts”. (How late though? I’ve seen enough people point out that the church fathers had quite a factual approach to things, as long back as, say, 400AD… how much changed between 70AD and 400AD one wonders?)

    Theo (SG pastor) tells me that in Judaism, certain bits of the Bible has as many as 30 interpretations, that good Jewish rabbis are aware of. That isn’t a problem when you’re using it as a tool to think and discuss ways of life.

    My point then? Well, that I agree with you, but only to some degree. Maybe to the same degree as you meant it though, making all of this moot, except to point out to others that we’re not into sweeping statements here.

    Wars and the like? Well, I don’t know much about global politics, but I know enough about relationships, having observed relationships that work and relationships that fall apart: some exposure to the things relationship “therapists” do, stories I heard my mother tell me, of how good communication sometimes brings fighting couples together after they realise that they were really only fighting due to not understanding each other’s feelings and context with regards to what they said. With good communication and an understanding of that context, the argument often simply disappears…

    That’s relationships. How much of this takes place in global politics or religion can be open to debate, but I am certain that there is at least some of this that takes place. (Even if some of my over-passionate blog rants of the past took this “too far”… I concede… but yea, so the pendulum swings.)

  • 65 Linda // Jul 10, 2008 at 10:35 pm

    To borrow the words of an atheist who I admire and respect very much…

    “Agreement is not important; only understanding is.”

    I highly respect him as a person and for his wisdom, but I don’t agree with his atheistic views.

    At the same time, I don’t expect anyone to agree with me. As a matter of fact, I would discourage it if it hasn’t been thought through. If some of your views happen to align with mine, then great. We will enjoy it for what it is. But I welcome the disagreements (without hostility, of course). I really believe we cannot grow beyond ourselves if we are not willing to explore the opposing perspectives.

    I just thought it would be good to move beyond the whining about being offended and getting our feelings hurt (I’m not pointing to anyone in particular here). I just see this a lot in various places. How else can anyone express honest and sincere opinions?

  • 66 Ben-Jammin' // Jul 11, 2008 at 2:46 am

    The general issue of beliefs from different points of view is feeding into a new brouhaha over communion wafers. PZ Myers is being rude and insulting; Catholics are thinking their beliefs should have the effect of law.


  • 67 Hugo // Jul 11, 2008 at 3:17 am

    How do you feel about PZ’s handling of the matter? Do you think it is “effective”?

    (I think he does it mostly for “fun”, for him and those that like his style… or for “rallying the troops”, bringing about solidarity among those that like his style… Might it be “effective” with regards to accomplishing anything valuable beyond that? *ponders for a few moments* I don’t think so. I really don’t…)

  • 68 Ben-Jammin' // Jul 11, 2008 at 3:42 am

    How do you feel about PZ’s handling of the matter? Do you think it is “effective”?

    If the effect he was looking for was to piss off Catholics, his handling was very effective. I’m not sure there could be another motive for threatening the wafer. Even the Blasphemy Challenge had more in favor of it – it helped dispel the fear of hell and magic words. I’m pretty sure PZ and most of his readers (including me) are very much unaffected by any fears of host desecration.

    I would guess (emphasis on the word guess – you know how much one person’s guess at another person’s motivation is worth) that it’s done to aggressively assert the naturalist narrative.

    How do you feel about the Catholics’ handling of the matter? Do you think it is “effective”?

  • 69 Hugo // Jul 11, 2008 at 4:14 am

    Heh, there’s a tough question, as I’m supposed to first find empathy…

    Suppose I were to believe in transubstantiation then? I believed the cracker literally became the body of Christ? I suppose walking away with it would then be akin to stealing Jesus’ body from the grave, eh… the wrong thing to do, (seeing as you’re supposed to eat it, Jesus’ literal body, instead). OK… right, so empathize with that… hmm…

    Trying to picture myself into their shoes, I can understand that they’re angry. Their reaction might serve to demonstrate how strongly they feel about it. And then there’s death threats… hey, well, that certainly demonstrates that they feel strongly.

    Now we can talk about effectiveness… verdict: counter-productive to the extreme. Reason: they fail to understand PZ’s position on the matter. His position: he believes their beliefs are absurd, and that religious beliefs like that can lead to violence, to good people doing bad things. The effect of the reaction: confirms PZ’s beliefs about their beliefs. Hence, completely counter-productive.

    From there my belief that they’re all just pushing each other to further extremes, polarising the landscape to a greater extreme. Stress things until breaking point, maybe that’s a strategy, hoping that the “incorrect opinion” breaks. Doubt it though. Can only turn ugly.

    What’s the alternative? Well, understanding one another’s positions, and acting “respectfully” (I suspect “respect” can have multiple meanings, with regards to our prior conversation) could help not pushing things to such violent conclusions. Catholics understanding the atheistic perspective would refrain from requesting censorship or from making death threats. Maybe rather try to politely explain that the tradition carries much meaning for them… as if PZ doesn’t know. So what, rather just ignore PZ? And PZ could have been “polite” as well…

    The result? The status quo remains. But hopefully the decreased tension of the arms-race-to-extremes allows better communication, better education, and in the long run, more openness to learning “from one another”, and eventually “finding the real truth”. But this requires patience, probably multiple generations and good education, to succeed. Patience that PZ doesn’t care to have, ditto for the Catholics. They want results *now*… but that aint happening.

    From this one could gather I prefer peaceful approach, openness to learning from one another’s “traditions”, further then encouraging good education and tolerance, and heaps of patience. Tough, but I consider patience a virtue. (Though I don’t advocate sitting back and waiting until “The Other” nukes you for your world-view, I think the nuke will more likely be sent due to the above induced extremes.)

  • 70 Hugo // Jul 11, 2008 at 4:20 am

    Ooh, nasty, a commenter points out:

    The issue is not Mr. Myers’ critical tone regarding the Catholic response, it is his call for members of the community to steal the consecrated Holy Communion for public desecration.

    Sounds like childish fight-picking/bullying to me. “Let’s go steal their lunch!” Friggin immature children, is my opinion…

    I wonder if I should make a post of this issue/discussion? Not that I want to draw any “PZ extremists” here, I’ve already got my hands full with you lot. 😛 PZ’s crowd aint fun to hang out with, if you’re talking about things they don’t talk about, or in ways they don’t use.

  • 71 Ben-Jammin' // Jul 11, 2008 at 4:45 am

    Sounds like childish fight-picking/bullying to me. “Let’s go steal their lunch!” Friggin immature children, is my opinion…

    Yup. A parent should take all the wafers away until everyone can play nice with them. 🙂

  • 72 Linda // Jul 11, 2008 at 7:11 pm

    Cool. Perfect example of both sides not willing to have open minds and ongoing communication.

    How do you feel about PZ’s handling of the matter? Do you think it is “effective”?

    PZ is just being PZ. If you are at all familiar with the way he writes about religion, there’s nothing to be offended by. If you can get past his tone, he often makes a lot of sense. “Effective”? Well, it got many people talking about, so in that sense, I suppose it was effective. Did it have a positive effect? Depends on how you look at it.

    How do you feel about the Catholics’ handling of the matter? Do you think it is “effective”?

    Well… I don’t think being offended and resorting to death threats is a desired effect. And it appears playing nice is not going to happen anytime soon.

    I say put the two of them in a boxing ring, put enough pads on them, and let them duke it out. 🙂

    I seriously believe our global society in general are very primitive in managing conflicts. Most seem to either avoid them at the cost of remaining ignorant or let things get too personal. No one wants to face them head on with their heads on.

  • 73 Linda // Jul 11, 2008 at 7:13 pm

    Sorry, I had

    issues. 🙁

  • 74 Linda // Jul 11, 2008 at 7:15 pm

    that is …. ‘blockquote’ issues. Grrrr…!

  • 75 Hugo // Jul 11, 2008 at 7:17 pm

    Nice level-headed response, Linda. Fixed the blockquote for ya.

    Well, it got many people talking about, so in that sense, I suppose it was effective.

    The thing is this: who’s talking about it? Each is in their own camp, talking about how silly “The Other” is, and no progress is made. It reinforces the separation between groups. Except, it inspires people like us to bitch and moan about how those people bitch and moan, maybe we end up going to more trouble building bridges, in order to fight the fighting… a secondary effect, which might thus indirectly be effective? 😛 (If we’re at all effective in our attempts, that is.)

    How many people realise the futility of childish fighting as a result of increased visibility of childish fighting?

  • 76 Hugo // Jul 11, 2008 at 7:28 pm

    Though, there is another potential effect: increased ridicule and public visibility by the PZ crowd could result in more peer pressure for people to not be Catholics or not become Catholics. E.g. it could be very “uncool” among teenagers, where PZ-style rhetoric and peer-pressure might catch on.

    Fundie-style religion could be driven “underground” by this kind of ridicule, and become increasingly more tenacious and proselytizing (check wikipedia on Cognitive Dissonance), but some would argue “as long as it’s only a minor portion of the population, that’s fine.

    Don’t underestimate the tenacity and influence of an underground splinter sect though.

    In other news, it seems Shofar has planted a second church in London. The first is in Wimbledon, caters for the South Africans that became Shofarians in Stellenbosch, and are currently in London. The new one is in Tooting, aiming explicitly at recruiting Brits. And led by Brits as a result… Scared yet?

  • 77 Linda // Jul 13, 2008 at 4:46 am

    Everyone has been talking about this. The Friendly Atheist, for example.

    While you’re there, there was also another thread about education and funadamentalism.

    Anyway, it’s disturbing to hear about the spread of Shofar in the UK. I’ll have to ask a British friend about it.

  • 78 Hugo // Jul 13, 2008 at 1:50 pm

    @Linda: it sounds like they may be struggling a bit to “bring in the harvest”, it would be interesting to watch how their British membership grows. The church plant focusing on Brits should help with that.

    I hear at one point some went to speak at speaker’s corner… I’d think they’d quickly realise that is not the best way to go about recruiting, based on my own experience of speaker’s corner being “everything you need to put people off religion for a lifetime”. 😉

    Another strategy the members have been instructed to go with, is to befriend people. No need to evangelise, just invite someone over for dinner, or to watch the rugby with you, or anything like that. Just build friendships. Apparently, according to the Shofarian I talked to, Shofar might even sponsor a TV if you decide you would like to contribute via the “invite people over for rugby” path.

    I assume the aim is: networking. Increase/improve/expand the social network, demonstrate a way of life, get into good books, create a network that can later exert peer pressure (and love-bombing 😉 ). Once connected and curious, they’re more open to having metaphysics thrown at them.

  • 79 Hugo // Jul 30, 2008 at 1:08 am

    Had a chat with “my pastor” today. Mentioned this post, and pondered out loud whether I should pass it on to my family. He said “yes, of course! Stand up for what you believe…” or something like that. I emailed it to him this evening, he continues encouraging me to share. So I’m pulling together some guts, getting ready to do so. Maybe email it to my cousins… they can take a printed copy to my aunt/uncle.

    And then see what emerges from that… I may end up sowing some chaos in my extended family: Angus fan-club. And I’m fleeing to Switzerland. LOL. Pity that that will reduce the ease of good direct conversations with the people I’d love to converse with. Including my pastor. There I’d like to hack out some idea of his recommendations about where the line lies between directly sharing your beliefs, and explaining just the relevant portion, holding back to facilitate communication about that which is more important “right now”.

  • 80 Ben-Jammin' // Jul 30, 2008 at 3:20 am

    I hope it goes well, whatever you do, Hugo. I think it will; for all the disagreements I send your way, you do seem to be able to ‘translate’ much better than most people. Who knows? Maybe it will work out well and everyone will get to see from each other’s viewpoints a little better.

    The glass will be half full! The glass will be half full!

  • 81 Hugo // Jul 31, 2008 at 4:30 am

    Thanks Ben.

    I’m thinking of writing a “cover letter”, a little intro, to sketch out why I’m sharing it with them. Assuming I do so… but I think I might.

    My mother read it today (yesterday). Said she was quite impressed, and wanted to send it to another aunt, but was worried about the particular family in question. Most interesting was her idea of what would come across worst: apparently the intro paragraphs? I took another look, I can only assume she means the “fundamentalism” word. That detail’s just too bad, I’m afraid. Firstly, some Shofarians are proud about the “fundamentalist” label, and secondly, they really should be aware of their importing of American fundamentalism.

    I’m much more worried about some of the things lower down in the post, that will likely rock the boat quite badly, but that is because of me being more aware of what the Shofarian perspectives are, or how supernaturalism within the prosperity gospel works, as well as exclusive “we’ve got it right” religious traditions. But that is what would be most interesting: how badly does the mere suggestion that there are other ways of looking at things, go down?

    I’ll write the cover letter, maybe share it here (hmm, English or Afrikaans?), and invite them to a conversation to clear up details and misunderstandings. If all that happens, I’ll probably make a post (or two) about what came up in the conversation. Seems a little more serious than the typical post in the “casual conversations” series… maybe I should have a “serious conversations” series? 😉

  • 82 When Cover Letters Aren’t Adequate // Aug 4, 2008 at 12:13 pm

    […] those following the comments may know, I was still wondering whether I should forward the Abusing the Story of Job post to my family or not. And so I continue wondering. If I do send it, I would include a cover […]

  • 83 Hugo // Aug 6, 2008 at 12:00 am

    Minor typo corrections:

    “believes he his prayers” -> “believes his prayers”

    “And when it comes to” -> “Particularly when it comes to” (reads better)

    “I have on this below, so I hope it falls under fair use?” -> missed some words… -> “I have a commentary or critique on this devotional below, so I hope it falls under fair use?”

  • 84 Hugo // Aug 7, 2008 at 12:33 am

    I’ve rewritten the sting in the tail…

    One of my good friends commented recently that, had that (the old) sting come from someone else, he would have read it very differently. But, coming from me, it was… um… I can’t remember his actual words. Humorous? Interesting? Made him smile? I wish…

    The point: a phrase written with my friends in mind, can be poetically written like that. How do I translate it for people that believe in demon possession though? And still maintain something of the same impact, and the same poetic, um, “flair”?

    Well, what do you guys think of the new sting? 😉

    Another interesting thought was to use one of the French knight’s insults from Monty Python and the Holy Grail… Crazy and silly, but, I dunno, I enjoyed the thought. For those that want a refresher and have actually seen the movie, do a search “guard:” on this page.

    Oh, wait, here’s another sting: I will say Nee to you! Hehe.

    Naturally, these are not the kind of things that would pop into my mind when I felt as strongly as I did while I was writing this piece. I can’t really find a good substitute. The original is in a way irreplaceable, despite being so imperfect.

    Nevertheless, enjoy the current one? Meh, this comment shouldn’t have been so long. I’m spoiling the original idea.

  • 85 Hugo // Aug 25, 2008 at 11:26 pm

    I’ve just found out my family have read this post, and it went down terribly. A complete misunderstanding of intentions and attitudes. Did I ridicule? They read the comments as well.

    And all this happens two days before I leave. I’m running around like crazy trying to get things in order — found out today I have to go to Cape Town tomorrow (Tuesday) *and* Wednesday, to get my work permit. At the last minute. So I can’t fight this fire right now… 😐 The situation certainly feels quite terrible now.

  • 86 Ben-Jammin' // Aug 26, 2008 at 1:13 am

    I’ve just found out my family have read this post, and it went down terribly. A complete misunderstanding of intentions and attitudes.

    Sorry to hear that, Hugo. I hope my comments weren’t too bad in this one…now I have to go back and check, though I couldn’t change them now anyway…

    Did I ridicule?

    No. If this post was ridiculing, I’m at a loss for what to call other writings.

  • 87 Linda // Aug 27, 2008 at 3:20 am


    I’m really sorry about how it all seems to have turned out. But you were only trying to be honest. You were only trying to stick to your truth. You did not want your family to go on believing a lie about you.

    They had to know sooner or later, right? It couldn’t have gone on indefinitely the way it was.

    Consider this: When truth is presented to people believing in a lie, rejection is inevitable. That’s why Jesus had to be killed, correct? I think you should be more concerned if everything had gone smoothly.

    Regardless, you are very brave. I admire your courage to stand up for the truth (or the ongoing search for the truth). Ultimately, love conquers all. If they love you and you love them, that should be the only thing that matters in the end.

    Good luck with your new job, Hugo!

  • 88 Hugo // Aug 27, 2008 at 9:18 am

    Good luck with your new job, Hugo!

    Thanks Linda.

    Furthermore, the worst has blown over to some degree. I’d say the problem is I handled it rather poorly. With hindsight I know quite well what I should have done differently, but what’s done is done. If I’ve ruined some relationships with me, that would be very sad. I hope any such relationships can eventually be repaired. However, my biggest worry was that I ruined other relationships indirectly, that would be really terrible for me. From the sounds of it though, it should be okay. (My mother says it’s okay.)

    Now that’s that, I think we should put this matter to rest.

    Interesting to note why this comment thread is so long: we discussed everything from Sunday school through dealing with differences of opinion to PZ/Crackergate… As far as crackergate discussions go, this comment thread is pretty short. 😉

  • 89 gloep // Aug 27, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    Hopelik is dit net tyd wat nodig is vir die boodskap om reg verstaan te word? Soms is dit nodig om iets sonder te veel emosie te lees, en dit kom net mt tyd. O fso iets.

  • 90 Linda // Aug 27, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    Interesting to note why this comment thread is so long: we discussed everything from Sunday school through dealing with differences of opinion to PZ/Crackergate… As far as crackergate discussions go, this comment thread is pretty short

    Haha… From looking at this thread, I would have to guess that you have a “P” (perceiving) preference. That’s MBTI talk for being casual, open-ended, spontaneous, and emergent. Email me if you’re ever interested in taking the assessment. You may need it at your new job!

    There! another subject matter added to the list. I’m definitey a P! You can check out this list I made as a guest post on another blog! It may make you chuckle. 😀