Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Far from the kingdom

Here is a self-styled honest atheist telling us how he would react if, after death, he turned out to be wrong and actually met the Christian God.

Several points strike me about this. First of all, it is very noticeable that nowhere does he refer to repenting of his sins if he were to turn out to be wrong. Does he believe that he has no sins? It almost sounds like that. His sneering references to the conversion of rapists, etc., and his statement that God would "know why he thinks he's led a good life" do seem to indicate that. Aside from any questions of the epistemology of religious belief, this is not the attitude of an ethically mature person. The only duty he seems interested in is one which he is very proud of having fulfilled--namely, the duty not to believe without sufficient evidence. He even goes so far as to say that he believes that God, if he exists, would be proud of him! Who says that? Even a Christian who believes his sins are covered by the blood of Jesus doesn't imagine standing up to God and telling God that God should be proud of him! Yet this young man has had every opportunity to know, given the research he claims to have done, that if God exists then we are all sinners before Him, we all have things that we need to repent of, and we will all be awed and struck to our knees by His holiness if and when we see Him face to face. Even by the natural light this young man should have some things that he is ashamed of or regrets having done, yet he is completely unfazed by the thought of God's existence in relation to his own wrong-doing. On the contrary, he has a positively pharisaical attitude towards "really bad" people who have "accepted Jesus as their personal Savior before they died." This reminds me of the Pharisee in Jesus' parable: "I thank thee that I am not as this Publican." Jesus said that those who are healthy don't need a physician. If an atheist can contemplate even the existence of God without thinking that then he would need a physician...that's a bad sign.

Second, though he says that he is taking seriously what it would mean for God to exist and for him to be wrong, he isn't taking seriously the character of the Christian God as he must know it to be postulated by Christianity. If God really does exist, God is worthy of worship, is one before whom we should bow, is all-good, and so forth. He says he's envisaging the possibility that the Christian God exists and that he is wrong, but as the end of the video makes clear, he's really holding out instead the possibility that "the Christian God" is merely vain in wanting to be worshiped, is petty, is unjust, and hence is someone he would have no duty to bow before and someone he would not want to spend eternity with. Yet given the amount of research he says he's done, he has every reason to know that in the very nature of the case the Christian God is One by whom and for whom we were made, is Goodness itself, is the true end of all men. If the Christian God exists, then worshiping Him is our true end, and attributing mere vanity to Him is an absurdity.

If he were taking this point seriously, he would take seriously the imagined conversion of those hypothetical rapists. He has had opportunity to know that anyone who truly believes and accepts Jesus has repented of his sins, that something profound has happened when these previously evil men "accepted Jesus as their personal Savior," that their doing so wasn't some trivial sop to God's vanity, yet he sneers at their conversion and sets up, to knock down, a petty and vain God.

Third, by this attitude towards God-if-God-exists, he is gearing himself up to tell God, "Non serviam," which is precisely the attitude of hell. At the outset of the video he says something good. He says that if he turns out to be wrong, he'll want to know where he went wrong in his reasoning. Great! But as he continues it sounds very much like he's absolutely sure that God would simply be dumbfounded by this request and wouldn't be able to tell him anywhere that he went wrong in his reasoning! Given that God does exist, it's entirely plausible, especially for someone who has has access to as many resources and has looked into this matter as much as this fellow says he has, that he has indeed gone wrong somewhere, that his motives hasn't been as pure as he advertises them to be or that he hasn't tried hard enough to get answers to his doubts and questions or that he has not properly prepared himself by following the light that he does have. So why not anticipate that God will show you that if God turns out to exist?

It would be quite different to say that if God exists, he will at that point be glad to fall on his knees and worship God, even if he doesn't understand everything, that he will humbly accept God's correction. But there is no trace of that attitude. Yet he says that his motives are pure and that he wants God to exist. Really? Then why would such a meeting at death not be a cause for humble joy?

Instead, by the end, he's envisaging not wanting to spend eternity with God, because a God who isn't proud of him and doesn't vindicate him would be a God who makes him sick.

There may indeed be tough questions about how God deals with those who genuinely have not had the opportunity to know about Jesus Christ--those who have been isolated from all Christians or even those with mental disabilities. But my own opinion is that people like the young man in the video are not the ones who create some kind of "problem of hiddenness" for Christians. They, rather, are the ones to whom God is likely to say those terrifying words: "Thy will be done."


William Luse said...

Okay, I watched about 5 minutes of it and couldn't take anymore. What you're watching is the modern narcissist for whom any hypothetical god can exist only in the beholder's eye. In this way, he ends up knowing God better than God knows Himself.

When he says that he'd be "shocked, shocked" to find himself in the presence of God after death, he's lying, imo. Atheists have to drone on about God because their own creed doesn't offer much to chew on. I think our arrogant, self-proclaimed protagonist atheist boy-man expects to meet some kind of Being whom he can challenge to a post-mortem debate, imagining that he can actually win it.

Kristor said...

A cocksure boy. He'll get his comeuppance from life, sooner or later; we all of us do. Whether it educates him, or stiffens him in his obduracy, is another question. If I had to lay money, I’d wager he ends up a Christian. He seems like a nice kid, at bottom. He wants only a bit of weathering, to end up a gentle old saint, deadly serious the while.

Still, he raises a question I've been worrying about lately, a bit. To omniscience, would any ignorance whatsoever seem truly vincible? I can't see how it would. If I'm doing my best to understand the truth, given my experience, (and given also my best understanding of my best (which is, likewise, a product of my experience)), and I honestly conclude to atheism, how might omniscient, infinite compassion find fault with me?

I remind myself that it is not omniscient infinite compassion who finds fault with me, but I who find fault with him. When I disagree with reality, I judge and condemn myself. It could not possibly be otherwise.

In the end I suppose it comes down to the question I must ask myself: did I, in cold hard fact, do my absolute best? Could I possibly have done better than I did, in seeking out and understanding the truth?

When I was a kid I played a Frisbee game with my brothers and friends. You threw the Frisbee as close as you could to the outer limit of what your adversary might be able to catch, running as hard as he possibly could. The scoring was all done by the catcher. If he caught the Frisbee, there was no score. If he could possibly have caught the Frisbee, either by trying a bit harder or by not tripping and falling, or making some other mistake, he awarded the point to his adversary; if there was no way he could possibly have caught the Frisbee, no matter how hard he tried, he awarded the point to himself.

The latter case is invincible ignorance; the former, vincible.

So then: did I do my utmost to understand Truth? Can I honestly award myself the point for trying?

No. Of course not. I was weak, or tired; or slothful, or attracted more to some other thing. I could have done more. It might not have sufficed, even if I had; but still, I could have done more. When it comes to being and doing good in relation to the Truth, one might always have done more.

From this point of view, there is almost no excuse, for anyone, because reality is such as to admit our penetration to the Truth; Romans 1:20 says, “anyone can catch the Frisbee.”

But if all ignorance is ultimately vincible – this being, NB, just another way of saying, if reality is truly intelligible – then, who is excused from the choice of salvation? No one!

So here’s where we arrive at Pelagianism, and its antithesis in the Marian “yes.” If it is up to me to catch the Frisbee, I am a Pelagian, and I cannot ever catch the Frisbee, because the Truth is outside my reach, no matter how hard I try. But if I simply run as hard as I can, and let go of the question whether I can catch the Frisbee, then even when I don’t, *I have run as hard as I can.* And that is all that can matter, in the end.

If I have done that, then wherever I find myself, I am Emeth: named for the Truth himself, as thain and servant of his house, howsoever base or mean.

The Frisbee game is the noblest game I have ever played. All sport involves the same moral challenge; but no other game is about *nothing but the moral challenge.* In no other game have I ever rejoiced so at the victories of my adversaries.

Lydia McGrew said...

The thing is, though, Kristor, that we are called upon to admit that we weren't pure, that we didn't really try as hard as we could have to catch the Frisbee. That's repentance and humility. No one who meets God with, "In a sense I did my best, so you owe it to me to take me to heaven, and if you don't agree, you disgust me, and I don't want to have anything to do with you" is going to reach heaven. Nor is such a person Emeth. Emeth fell down and worshiped the lion and was sorry (though we aren't even told if he "could have" known better) that he had worshiped Tash all his days. Emeth didn't believe that the lion owed him anything. He didn't think for a moment about his own deserving. His attitude was "Not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses." He only thought that it was better to have seen the lion for a moment, whatever came after, for the lion is all-glorious.

This young fellow does not appear to be making himself that kind of person at all. It isn't Pelagianism to say we have to be prepared to repent of our failings, or even, for goodness' sake, be prepared to be prepared to repent! Be willing to admit that, even though we don't know where we have failed, there is probably somewhere that our motives have not been perfectly pure and so forth, rather than bragging about our own perfection.

I was thinking about this yesterday, and I applied it to a rather touchy point--my being a Protestant rather than a Catholic.

I would never say, "My motives for not being a Catholic are absolutely pure as the driven snow. I have never done anything but examine the evidence in an utterly objective fashion. If I find out after death that I was wrong, God will have nothing to blame me for in this respect." Now, I've _tried_ to live up to that standard, and I'm not _aware_ of having misevaluated. Obviously, I believe what I believe and don't believe what I don't believe for what seem to me the best reasons I can see. But it would be sheer hubris, dangerous hubris, to tell God and the whole world that I'm 100% epistemically perfect and pure! And that even if it seems to me that I am! Because I could be wrong about that as well.

Kristor said...

My apologies for a somewhat muddled comment. I wasn’t even talking about our young atheist friend after the first paragraph. Until he gets his inevitable comeuppance, it is indeed difficult to see how he might respond to Aslan as Emeth did: with joy, despite an expectation of being deservedly torn to pieces. I wasn’t so interested in the atheist himself as in the apparent conundrum he has noticed, which has been on my mind lately.

The rest of the comment was pretty muddled in its own right. So are my thoughts; this issue is percolating right now, and is not yet fully cooked in my mind.

On the one hand, all our ignorance is invincible *in practice,* because we are invincibly Fallen (the T in TULIP). On the other, all our ignorance is vincible *in principle,* because reality is in fact intelligible, and we are in fact intelligent. So although we are Fallen, nevertheless we are without excuse. We could not possibly have caught the Frisbee on our own, for it lies just beyond the unassisted reach of our own defective powers; but we could possibly have tried harder, and we could possibly have caught it.

It took me a long time to figure this out, but the point of the game is not to catch the Frisbee, but to be excellent, and to be more and more excellent.

Pelagianism is thinking that we catch the Frisbee by the exercise of our own powers. The Marian yes lies in remembering that, even when we discover that the Frisbee lies in our hands, the catching of it is not due simply to our exercise of our own meager powers – even though the catching could not have happened but for our exertions thereof – but is rather an outworking of Providence that involves all creation – all creatures, exercising each their own powers of secondary causation, coordinated with us and our powers in such a way as to deliver the Frisbee into our hands.

Kristor said...

In writing all this, I feel rather as though I am stretching to reach a Frisbee. The notion I want to convey – to understand, and grasp – keeps slipping off the tips of my fingers.

I suppose it is this. Grace operates in us insofar as we repent of our own muddled and errant intentions, get ourselves out of the way and let it; and it works in us and through us, has causal effects that reorder history (both inwardly in us, and outwardly in the worldly consequences of our works) insofar as we do indeed then work. The Spirit works in us by way of our work. The Marian yes then involves not just setting aside the Pelagian objective of catching the Frisbee, but agreement to put all our own causal powers at the disposal of the Lord, without stint. The Marian spiritual life, then, entails rejection of our own notions of our limits. And this is eo ipso an acceptance of pain; which is our mortal, Fallen weakness leaving the body.

Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think , according to the power that worketh in us. Ephesians 3:20.

In the Frisbee game, the trick, the whole point, is to arrive at the point of pain, where the body is screaming in agony, and let go of the limit that agony would otherwise impose, so as to surpass it – to blow right through it, and into something like sheer flight. When that happens, in the game, it is as though there is a sort of explosion of power, and physical grace. It is an occasion of intense aesthetic delectation. That doesn’t mean it isn’t agonizing. It is, intensely. But “agony” means, first, struggle for victory (in the games); like jihad. And I have found, not just in this little game of Frisbee, but also in the wilderness, and in music, that the intensity of realized beauty is in part a function of the intensity of the pain of the sacrifice involved in its realization. This I suppose is why we ought always to sacrifice the first, best fruits.

So then, is our ignorance vincible, or not? It is: but only if we allow the Spirit to work in and through our own powers, which on their own cannot conquer our ignorance. We can understand, we can know; but only insofar as we have faith (that we can understand and know). So understanding is possible only to faith seeking understanding.

I assimilate faith to our confidence in a mathematical truth that we understand. To have faith in a proposition, we must understand it as true; and to understand it, to arrive at an apprehension of its truth (an apprehension which is after all essentially given to us, and ineluctable, as a raw qualium of our experience of the proposition not unlike the data of our qualitative apprehensions of its elegance or power, its simplicity or profundity, &c.; we simply see the truth, and so seeing, we cannot see otherwise), we must have faith in it. The apprehension of truth is faith in the truth; the two motions of the spirit are not separable, for they are not disparate.

Faith understands truth; and seeks further understanding.

Lydia McGrew said...

On the one hand, all our ignorance is invincible *in practice,* because we are invincibly Fallen (the T in TULIP). On the other, all our ignorance is vincible *in principle,* because reality is in fact intelligible, and we are in fact intelligent."

The second sentence illustrates that you will never make a Calvinist of any stripe (and a darned good thing, too), because the T in TULIP as understood by real Tulip-ers definitely means total, total, total depravity and hence the denial that reality is intelligible to us. Our intellect itself is deemed to be too fallen. One expression of this I have read is that too the non-redeemed, every apple is a God-denying apple. (I'm not making that up.)

One possible factor that should be brought into the paradoxes you are discussing is the distinction between knowing that God exists and loving and following God.

The young atheist in the video assumes that people are damned for not believing that God exists. Since the Devil is damned, that can't be in fact the crucial issue. Now, if God has not left himself without witness, then there are ways to know that he exists, nor is it *necessarily* a matter of ethical virtue per se to follow those ways and come to that conclusion. For some, it isn't even all that hard. Take a child of apologetics geeks, for example, who has evidences for God's existence poured out at his feet from the earliest time that he is able to comprehend them and onward, constantly set out for him like a smorgasbord at every stage of his development. (I realize there aren't a lot of children of apologetics geeks out there, but the point is made for the sake of illustration.)

It's easy to get so focused on the question of how hard *some* people may have to work to come to the conclusion that God exists, especially the Christian God--people raised in non-Christian environments, for example, or people whose Christian environment was fideist--that we come to think it always a great effort and a great accomplishment simply to come to *believe in* God. But in a sense, that's only the beginning. Once you believe in God, the real question is what you are going to do with that proposition--are you going to say "Yes" to him (as Mary and many others have done) or reject him?

It's true that for some that rejection takes the form of *telling themselves* that the evidence isn't really good enough, but not always by any means.

So doesn't the Pelagian vs. grace issue come up more when it comes to sinning/rejection vs. commitment to God?

Kristor said...

Yes. That at least was what I was mostly talking about in my comments.

But at the same time, there is I think a sense in which it must be that if I sin at all – if I fail even a little bit to accomplish the complete Marian “yes” – that must mean that I don’t really believe in God/don’t know who God is (these being, I think, two ways of saying the same thing). To know God is to love him.

Knowing who and what God is, how could I possibly sin?

My sin turns all my protestations of belief into hypocrisy.

This is very like Plato’s account of sin: that it must derive from ignorance of the Good.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Wow. Both articulate, and from a fallen, marred image's viewpoint, relatively well-researched and reasoned as well.

He's so young, let's keep hoping and praying for him.

But he will have to not assume God's terms are what he expects them to be.

But if he never repents, never confesses Christ as Lord while still here on Earth, well he'll do so later.

But as far as I can discern, he seems unteachably proud and sure of himself.