Friday, November 30, 2012

Why I'm Not A Pluralist

                I skimmed over one of my all time favorite books, "The Life of Pi" by Yann Martel, recently for a book club and it got me to thinking about pluralism. I was going to attack this subject in the next few weeks anyway, and since it’s on my mind, I thought I’d go ahead and address it now.

                Pluralism is, in its essence, a philosophical system which seeks to harmonize the various religions of the world, seeking common ground between them. It attempts to find a single universal religion of which all other faiths can be thought of as manifestations. John Hick, in his exposition of pluralism says that “the same God who saves Christians through their response to the incarnate Christ also saves Jews through their response to the Torah, and saves Muslims through their response to the Qur’an, and saves Hindus through their response to the Vedic revelation . . .”[1] All religions, therefore, have salvific power insofar as they center on a manifestation of Ultimate Reality. The goal of pluralism is to act as a mediator between the different religions and find a way for us to stop seeing each other through hostile, right-wrong worldviews and see each other as belonging to a great family of humanity seeking to commune with Ultimate Reality.[2]

                My objections to pluralism are basically three-fold. First, I do not think that pluralism succeeds in accomplishing the goals I just outlined. To establish a common religion behind the religions, Pluralism must label certain aspects of each religion as unreal or mythological constructs of the particular culture from which it arises. In other words, these religious differences do not reflect God as He is in Himself, but only the human lenses through which we see God. If we are to accept the Pluralist vision of reality, then, we must reject doctrines such as the Trinity, for Christianity, or the final authority of Muhammad, for Islam, as factual revelations of God as He is in Himself.  Because of this, any ardent follower of any religion can never affirm Pluralism, but can only be seriously offended by it. Far from affirming all religions, pluralism denies all religions.

                Further, Pluralism, in proposing such a “least common denominator” religion behind the religions actually sets up a distinct worldview which makes exclusive truth claims that invalidate the truth claims of all other worldviews.  If Pluralism is factually correct, then Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and all others are factually inaccurate, and if any of those worldviews is correct, then Pluralism is incorrect. Pluralism itself, then, is not pluralistic. It makes an exclusive claim about reality which affords itself the same kind of moral and intellectual superiority which it finds so reprehensible in other worldviews. This first objection, then, is not saying that Pluralism is, out of hand, incorrect; but that it itself does not succeed at being pluralistic.

                Second, Pluralism, at its core, attempts to abide by the philosophy that all people are equally right, and that no concept of divinity should be thought of as “wrong.” So, in an effort to affirm all the various concepts of God, Pluralism must reject any characteristic of God that might factually contradict some other religion’s concept of Deity. For example, Pluralism cannot affirm a personal God because that would be a tacit denial of the impersonal concepts of God found in nontheistic traditions. John Hick, said “If we are to proceed inductively from the actual religious experience of humanity, rather than deductively from an arbitrarily adopted premise, then we must see theism as one form, but not the only form, of religious thought and experience.”[3] Any meaningful, positive statement about anything inherently implies that any contradictory statement is incorrect. Every positive statement contains within itself a multitude of negative statements. So you can’t say that God exists one way without saying that He does not exist in other contradictory ways. So Pluralism’s goal of affirming all religions robs it of the power to make any positive, constructive statements about God at all. The God that results can only be a vague, diluted sense of Diety.

                Third, pluralism can ultimately only be atheistic. There seems to be a basic difference between how Pluralists speak and think, and how Particularists speak and think. It seems to me that Particularists think about various religions as various scientific theories, like Heliocentrism and Geocentrism. It’s impossible to hold to both of these theories at the same time because they contain many mutually contradictory propositions. Pluralists seem to think about religions more like old legends, or as one friend said recently, as languages. To this friend, different religions are cultural expressions of divinity, just as languages are cultural expressions of ideas. Following a religion is like speaking a language; and so, it is as ridiculous to say that you can only adhere to one religion as it is to say that you can only speak one language. Or again, a Pluralist might study religions in the same way one might study cultural folk tales or poetry, as cultural expressions of our common humanity that help you to see universal truths in new light. They are true in the same way that the stories of King Arthur, or of Shakespeare, or Greek myths are true.

                For me, however, the analogy fails. Words from different languages may all point to the same idea but only because the words, in and of themselves, don’t carry any propositions along with them. A rose by any other name smells as sweet; and it is not the words we use that contradict one another, but the ideas to which they refer. You may very well call God Allah or Brahmah, Shiva or Ganesh but as soon as you use those names to propose certain factual realities, Pluralism falls apart. Indeed, the only way that Pluralism works is if God does not factually exist. As soon as you propose a God who factually exists, you propose a God that exists in some way but not others, who is characterized by some things and not others; you move into the realm of fact and fiction, of accurate and inaccurate, of right and wrong. Pluralism cannot ascribe to any particular factual instance of God because that instance may contradict some other concept of the divine. The only way to maintain that all concepts of God are valid is to deny that any of them actually point to some objectively existing reality, but that they merely point back inward toward the human who conceived. Pluralism cannot, therefore, maintain that all religions are true, but merely that all religions contain truth. Pluralism must be a version of atheism to hold together.

                So, if Pluralists don’t actually believe in a real, factual God, then what do they worship? Because of its least common denominator God is so vague, there is nothing in God or about Him worth centering on. The only thing left to center on is humanity itself. And that is just what pluralism ultimately does. It fails to focus humanity on God, and succeeds only at focusing us on ourselves. Hans Küng, another Pluralist, says that a religion is valid and salvific “insofar as a [it] serves the virtue of humanity, insofar as its teachings on faith and morals, its rites and institutions support human beings in their human identity, and allows them to gain a meaningful and fruitful existence, it is a true and good religion.”[4] Notice how he fails to say anything about Ultimate Reality here, only humanity. Pluralism removes God from the religious equation and substitutes humanity.

                I believe in God; I believe that He factually exists and that my role as a human is to serve, submit to, and glorify Him. Ultimately, I want to commune with God, and that is why I am not a Pluralist.

[1] John Hick, “John Hick: The Theological Challenge of Religious Pluralism” in Christianity and Other Religions: Selected Readings. Ed. by John Hick and Brian Hebblethwaite. (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2001). 165-166.
[2] ibid, 164. He wants us to see salvation as an actual change in men and women from natural self-centredness to, in theistic terms, God-centredness, or in more general terms, a new orientation centred in the Ultimate . . .
[3] ibid, 167.
[4]  Hans Küng, “Hans Küng: Is There One True Religion: An Essay in Establishing Ecumenical Criteria.” in Religions. 134.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Heaven and Hell

What is Heaven like? What is Hell like? The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology defines Heaven first as the Physical Sky and subsequently as the “Divine Abode” as the “dwelling place of God and his attendant beings.” Hell, on the other hand, is the “abode of the dead,” where unbelievers and sinners will be punished for their misdeeds. But what really defines these two destinations?

                In Revelation chapter 21 and 22, Heaven is described with these words:

21:3 “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them”

21:10-11 “And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.”

21:22-23 “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.[1] The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.”

21:25 “On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there.[2]

22:1 “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life[3], as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb”

22:3-5 “No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.”

As I read these verses the one overwhelming characteristic of Heaven that jumps out at me is the presence of God. Remember that Biblically speaking, Heaven is, primarily, the abode of God. Also remember that God is the Absolute, He is existence, He is life; also remember that God is Trinity and His decision to exist as community weaves communion into the fabric of what it means to exist. So eternal life does not just mean living forever; it means direct and unmediated communion with the One who is life, with God.

So, the defining characteristic of Heaven is not wealth, mansions or gold; it isn’t even security, health or pleasure. The defining characteristic of Heaven is the presence of God. Wherever God is, that is Heaven. Being in God’s presence, then, is to be in the presence of all those things which characterize God: light, life, truth, beauty, joy, peace, love, contentment, etc; but all of these are dependent on God’s presence. Heaven is the world of God’s shalom because His presence defeats and drives out all evil.
            Hell, therefore, must be defined by God’s absence. As God is not there, neither are any of those things which emanate from God. Hell is, then, darkness, death, ugliness, depression, chaos, hatred, restlessness, etc. It is ridiculous to want to go to Hell to be with a loved one whom you are sure will be there because A) there’s a good chance that Hell is characterized by solitude (since God is communion) and B) if you do find that loved one, you will hate each other, for love is contingent upon God.  
Hell, properly understood, does not allow for this.[4]            
One question that I’ve received about my definitions of Heaven, Hell, and God, is about continued existence in Hell. If God is life and existence, then how do people continue to exist in the absence of God. Remember when I talked about God as absolute, I said that God gives us a measure of autonomous existence. This enables us to exist within God without being subsumed by God’s existence.[5] Our reality is grounded in God’s over-arching reality, but we are able to exist independently of God.

Next week, I’d like to go deeper into the nature of Heaven as a the Kingdom of God which is both already here and not yet consummated.

[1] Think of the old temples of Judaism, needed to mediate the presence of God to the people, and filled with that presence like a cloud. Now there is no more mediation needed for the people of God can commune with God directly and immediately.
[2] There is no shadow or night in Heaven, which means that light is all surrounding, all encompassing. Where does that light come from; well, no sun is needed because God is the source of light, which is to say that God is all surrounding.
[3] Biblically speaking, water is a symbol which may commonly represent the Spirit of God.
[4] The Far Side © Gary Larson
[5] Langdon Gilkey uses this logic to avoid either dualism on the one hand or monism on the other.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Good and Evil, Sin and Righteousness

                The last few weeks, I’ve been talking about God, His nature and His characteristics. Last week, in particular I showed that God is to be equated with existence itself, that He is The Absolute; while the blog before that I discussed God’s Triune nature. This week, I’d like to move forward from God’s nature to that reality which depends on God’s nature. Specifically, I’d like to discuss the natures of good and evil.
                If God is the ultimate something, and evil is the opposite of God, then Evil must be defined as the ultimate nothing. Evil is non-existence. Where does this lead us? Evil, properly speaking, doesn’t exist. It’s not that it’s a myth, it’s that it exists in a state of non-existence. It exists in the same way that nothing, the void, zero, or darkness exists. It exists, but, properly speaking it exists as the absence of something else. Pure evil is not malevolent, it has no personality, and it is not out to get you. Pure evil doesn’t tempt because pure evil is pure and absolute nothingness. It has no mind, no heart, and no will with which to crush you. Evil is nothingness, it is non-existence.
                The effects of evil might be better thought of as entropy. Entropy is the scientific term used for the tendency of all things to break down into less and less complex systems. The dissolution of metal by rust, or decomposition, or cracks in brick walls, these are all evidences of entropy. It is the impersonal force in the universe that pulls all things toward nothingness. I am not saying that entropy is malevolent, I’m saying that evil is not malevolent, and describing the effects of evil as entropy.
                So, first and foremost, evil is the opposite of God, which is to say that evil is non-existence. What does this tell us about sin? It tells us that God did not sit in Heaven at the beginning of creation and arbitrarily pick out random behaviors to be forbidden. Sins are those actions which are consistent with the nature of evil. That is to say that sinful actions are those actions which destroy. Murder is a prime example of this principle, but every other sin may be defined in the same terms of destruction.
                At the end of last week’s post I pointed out that God’s freely chosen Trinitarian nature inserted community into the nature of existence; and I said that it was important. Here’s how it’s important. If God exists as community, and evil is the antithesis of God, then evil is the antithesis of community. As evil, by nature, destroys, so, by its nature as the anti-God, it also focuses on destroying relationships and communion. Think about the Sermon on the Mount; think about the ten commandments. Can you think of a single sin that isn’t primarily relational? Murder, adultery, lust, hatred, idolatry, blasphemy; all of them are, by nature, relational. They might be thought of as relational and societal entropy.
                On the flip side, what is righteousness? Growing up, I thought that righteousness was an end unto itself; that the goal of Christianity was to be a good person factory spitting out righteous people who behaved righteously. I was wrong. Righteousness is not an end, it is a means. Just as Sin can be defined as that which breaks down community, righteousness is that which builds community up.[1] Righteousness kept to itself is not righteousness; righteousness that does not affect the world around it, that does not let its light mingle in and alleviate the darkness, is simply wickedness disguised. Righteousness, to be righteousness, must be relational, encouraging those around it, and building up relationships into God’s vision of Shalom.

[1] Not just any community, it’s goal is the Shalom of God, which I talk about in greater detail here

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Absolute

                A few posts ago I started concentrating on the subject of God and His being. We started with a simple definition of the word “God” and talked about traditional Christian characteristics of God. We then moved on to discuss the Trinity. Today I’d like to talk about God as The Absolute.
                When I speak of The Absolute, I’m talking about that which is at the very core of reality itself. I’m talking about that which is behind and defines the laws of physics, that which defines existence, that which gives meaning, purpose, and value structure to the world we perceive ourselves to exist in. I would like to argue that God is The Absolute, that He is identical with existence itself.
                The crux of the argument comes from the divine attributes of omnipotence and infinity. If God is limited in any way, by anything, then He is neither omni-potent nor infinite (infinite literally meaning “without limits”). So we must affirm that even such basic concepts as space, time, and existence are contingent on God without defining or limiting Him. If God should choose to defy the laws of physics, or of space-time, or of existence itself, then He may, for He is God.
                Paul Tillich affirms this, saying “The being of God cannot be understood as the existence of a being along-side others or above others. If God is a being, he is subject to the categories of finitude, especially to space and substance. Even if he is called the “highest being” in the sense of the “most perfect” and the “most powerful” being, this situation is not changed. When applied to God, superlatives become diminutives. They place him on a level of other beings while elevating him above all of them . . . Whenever infinite or unconditional power and meaning are attributed to the highest being, it has ceased to be a being and has become being-itself. Many confusions in the doctrine of God and many apologetic weaknesses could be avoided if God were understood first of all as being-itself or as the ground of being.”[1]
                Now, at this point, some might argue that space-time might be considered to be a reality along side of God, but which He has complete control over. They might argue that reality is distinct and co-eternal with God, but that it does not impose itself on God. This doesn’t work, though, because, as Langdon Gillkey attests, if anything is co-eternal with God, then its very existence “everlastingly stands over against God, limiting His sovereignty and rule over existence.”[2] Any co-eternal personality, material, idea or principle imposes itself as a qualification on God simply by the fact of its existence apart from God’s will. In other words, if God didn’t will reality into existence, but came upon it as it is, then God would not be able to define reality, which undermines His omnipotence. For God to be unlimited, omnipotent, and infinite, then all existence must depend on Him. God is the foundation of reality; He is existence itself.
                I find it helpful to think about this in a couple different ways. Neither of these are altogether correct, but I think they make the concept more comprehensible to me. First, I think of God like an author, and history as His novel. Reality is the setting for the story and we are all characters in it. So, by analogy, God is to reality as Tolkien is to Middle-earth. The one major difference between God and Tolkien, of course, being that God is able to grant to His characters some measure of autonomous existence as centers of free will. We are able to move and act and be according to our own wills here within the story, within God’s being, which is existence.
                Second, I think of matter and energy and how they can be neither created nor destroyed and I wonder what cosmology might come about from the assumption that matter is, in its most basic indivisible form, simply pieces of God’s imagination, and energy simply a manifestation of God’s Spirit. The universe and all reality become a part of God’s body, so to speak (This is not pantheism, this is panentheism)
                Either way, the point remains, for God to be unlimited, eternal, omnipotent, and infinite, He must be identical with existence as The Absolute. If there is no Absolute, then there is no God; if there is no God, then there is no Absolute. As a result, any ultimate meaning or absolute value must come directly out of the nature and will of this Absolute God; for without Him, there is no ultimate or absolute. God cannot be judged against a measure of what is just, because He is the standard of justice.
                John D. Zizioulas points out another interesting implication of this idea. God is existence itself. God has freely chosen to exist as three persons in communion. As God’s nature determines and defines existence, this freely chosen relationality is woven into the fabric of what it means to exist. Communion becomes a necessary part of what it means to exist, and relationality is written into the definition of being.[3] That’s important, and it will come up later. Next week I’d like to think about how God’s nature as The Absolute affects how we think about evil.

[1] Paul Tilich , Systematic Theology Volume I: Reason and Revelation Being and God (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951) 235. Please don’t hate me for quoting Tillich, I am not a Tillichean and I have serious disagreements with other aspects of his theology. I just happen to think he’s right on target here.
[2] Langdon Gilkey, Maker of Heaven and Earth: The Christian Doctrine of Creation in the Light of Modern Knowledge. (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985) 48.
[3] John D. Zizioulas Being as Communion (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1985) 41.