Reform your faith

I was greatly honored to have received a wonderful text from progressive Christian Chuck Shingledecker. He encouraged me to reproduce it here which I did.

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Reform your faith
There is an important holiday celebrated on October 31st that has nothing to do with candy and carved pumpkins. It’s a commemoration of the day when a young Roman Catholic monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. It is Reformation Day.
Luther spent many years trying to follow all of the right disciplines of the church. He went to confession, prayed, fasted, served liturgy. But something inside of him was dissatisfied, tormented by what he held dear as the kingdom of God corrupted by the trappings of an oppressive secular power. Luther began to question what he’d been taught and all that he believed, first privately but then publicly by nailing a letter of 95 complaints about the church’s practices onto the doors of the Castle Church. Western Christianity has never been the same since.
Yet how many of us dare to do as Luther did? Sometimes we may talk about the need for reform in our church. But how many of us contemplate reforming our own faith? It turns out that a lot of us do.
Televangelists will tell us to look to Jesus for all our answers. To trust in God. To pray, fast, light candles, and do all of the feel-good things that give others, and ourselves, the illusion that we are changing on the inside. But that’s not real reform. At least not the sort that matters.
I’m talking about confronting our own faith in such a way that, perhaps for the first time in our lives, we dare to look at Christianity and all we hold dear and question it through the eyes of a skeptic. Let yourself be the troubled, hurting Christian who wants to believe but also to know the real truth. It’s what John Loftus calls the “outsider test for faith.”
That’s what Luther did on that late October day in 1517, at least when it came to the only faith he’d ever known. He certainly didn’t go as far as some of us in the modern world do. But it was a remarkable step, given his time, culture, and place. He questioned important aspects of the faith he loved and served.
I know how hard it must have been for him, because, though I’m certainly no Luther, I’ve done it, too. For many years I was tormented by my faith. I put on a good public display about it all, pretending to believe all of the right things and performing all of the right rituals. But my heart wasn’t always in it, must as it wanted to be. My mind wouldn’t allow it. I’d constantly ask myself, “Why am I doing this? What am I doing here? Do I believe any of it?”
The only answer I could give was that I was supposed to be there, supposed to believe the right things. My faith was dead, or at least dying. Until I did what no one good Christian is supposed to do, embrace the doubts and ideas that only “backsliding” Christians accept. Everything became subject to question: the Bible, the doctrines and authority of the church, and even whether or not I truly believed in God.
Yes, those are all forbidden things to question for many Christians. But so were Luther’s questions in his time. And just like the Reformation of the church, my own spiritual reformation hasn’t always been an easy thing for me. It has led to turmoil, both internal and interpersonal. I’ve lost some friends. And my faith is not what it once was.
It’s a faith that some would call incomplete or thin, no faith at all. And you know what? Sometimes they’re right. Sometimes I have no faith. Sometimes I, like the current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby who recently said, “There are moments, sure, when you think, ‘Is there a God?’‘Where is God?’” (bbc.com/news/uk-29255318), I’m unsure of whether or not God exists.
Sometimes I believe in God but not the Trinity. Sometimes I believe Jesus was simply a Jewish prophet whom Gentiles co-opted and made into a gentile savior. Other times I’m not sure what it is I believe. But that’s okay. Let me say that again. It’s okay.
I don’t say that to make myself feel better. I say that because I understand what torment it is to Charles Shingledecker – Reform Your Faith.
1 think it isn’t okay. And if you are tormented by your doubts about your faith, I want to say that you are not alone! There are tens of thousands—probably millions—in this country alone who feel just as you do. And if you’ve decided to slowly embrace those doubts, despite how scary it can be, then congratulations. You’ve nailed your own 95 theses to the door of your heart. It won’t always be an easy journey. But in the long run, it will be liberating, because you will no longer be afraid of doubt.

St. teresa of avila quote
A dear friend once told me to not fear my doubts. That was the first step on a long, continuing journey that I’m still on. Do not fear your doubts. Do not fear questioning authority, that of the church or even of God. We are not God’s slaves, but his children. And we are all in need of reform.
This is the lesson I take away from Reformation Day. Luther was far from perfect. At times,
especially later in life, he could be a bigoted and authoritarian asshat. But he did what few others in the history of the church ever would: He challenged its self-proclaimed authority, its long-standing practices, and he brought about reform. Not only of the church, but of his own faith. If he can do it, you can too.
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Chuck’s book Freedom to Doubt is available for the Amazon Kindle and in trade paperback. See FreedomToDoubt.com for excerpts and links. From October 30 to November 3, the Kindle version is being offered at a discounted price of just $0.99.

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I do hope this text will help some of my readers. Otherwise you might also appreciate my own advice for a struggling Christian.

 

 

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How fundamentalists create hell(s)

Progressive Christian blogger Fred Clarke recently called my attention to a worrisome phenomenon taking place in the deepest centre of fundamentalism in the United States.

His post was meant as a parody.

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The Harrowing of Hell House

As the Christian Nightmares blog reminds us, it’s that time of year again. October means Halloweeen — trick-or-treating, haunted hay rides, and — at places with names like “Greater Works Deliverance Ministries” — it means Hell Houses.

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Hell Houses are an irredeemably bad idea — a combination of the very worst forms of evangelism with the very worst forms of community theatre. The only thing worse than their warped soteriology and eschatology is their stunted, politicized, culturally shaped notion of what constitutes human sin. Or maybe the writing and acting.

They’re so very awful — and, ultimately, cruel — that some might be tempted to respond by, perhaps, Creating a Scene.

Disclaimer: I do not, of course, advocate interrupting, disrupting or otherwise interfering with any actual Hell House production. That would be uncivil and even, potentially, a misdemeanour. So the following suggestions are just a joke. No one should actually do any of these. Certainly, definitely, absolutely, probably not.

Option No. 1: If not for you meddling kids.

Cast size: 4

Props required: purple dress, bulky rust-colored turtle-neck, large-framed eyeglasses, chartreuse V-neck, cravat. (Optional: Groovy van, Great Dane).

Attend Hell House event dressed as Velma Dinkley, Norville “Shaggy” Rogers, Fred Jones, and Daphne Blake.

When the first demonic characters appear, Velma loses her glasses and stumbles, blindly into the performance space. After she blunders into the “demons,” Fred and Daphne step forward to unmask them, after which Shaggy says, “Zoinks! It’s the youth pastor!”

Scoobies

Option No. 2: The Hell House in the Woods.

Cast size: 3-5.

Props required: Short-sleeve white dress shirts, unfashionable ties, pocket-protectors, ID badges, clipboards, lab coat, sweater vest (for optional Roger the Intern).

Attend Hell House event dressed as Bradley Whitford, Richard Jenkins and Amy Acker’s characters from The Cabin in the Woods. Pretend to be orchestrating the demonic characters of the Hell House and the torment of the teenagers playing humans in the cast, but maintain a business-like, corporate attitude. Calmly explain to other attendees that the torments of Hell may seem cruel and unpleasant, but that we must placate the ancient ones and its the task of these sinners to be offered up to them.

Cabin33

Option No. 3: Who you gonna call?

Cast size: 4

Props required: Matching gray jumpsuits, proton packs, high-tech-looking goggles,  four large trenchcoats (to hide the jumpsuits and proton packs), smart phone with Jackie Wilson mp3 cued up.

Attend Hell House dressed as the Ghostbusters. At the first appearance of demonic characters, whip out the proton packs and start firing. As you are escorted off the premises, hit play on “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” and sing along, enthusiastically, on the way out.

Cautionary reminders: Don’t cross the streams. And if anyone asks you if you’re a god, say yes.

GB

Option No. 4: He descended into Hell …

Cast size: 1-12

Props required: White robe, beard, sandals, shepherd’s crook, stigmata. Bathrobe/sandal/beard costumes for assorted patriarchs and prophets (see Acts 7, Hebrews 11 for casting suggestions).

Arrive dressed as Jesus of Nazareth. At the first mention of Hell, shout “Come with me if you want to live” and begin escorting the dead from the Underworld and into Paradise (outside). The gates of Hell House will not prevail against you.

Harrowing2

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I just discovered hell houses through this post. I’m truly horrified by their wretched theology.

These Conservative Evangelicals worship an evil demon they call God.

He CURSED people with a sinful nature in the first place and will eternally torture them for misdeeds they were BOUND to commit.

Never mind the fact that the concept of sinful nature can’t be found within the Bible.

Never mind that the concept of everlasting torment is at odds with or unsupported by almost all Biblical texts.

Any human acting like the Conservative Evangelical god would be seen as a psychopathic monster.

I am also appalled by their focusing on sexual immorality and drugs while ignoring sins related to social justice and lack of charity.

Let’s consider one of their favourite passage for arguing for endless torments:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he
will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered
before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a
shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are
blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for
you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me
something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I
was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you
clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you
came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord,
when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you
something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in,
or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in
prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you
did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after
me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry
or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and
did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

In other words, NON-believers practising charity are worthy of heaven whereas BELIEVERS failing to do it are worthy of hell, meaning irremediable destruction.

This passage does NOT teach that all people dying as non-believers will be eternally tortured. Quite the contrary. It teaches salvation by work , a doctrine Conservative Protestants passionately detest.

I am extremely confident that many loving and humble people DYING AS ATHEISTS will be in heaven where they will gladly accept to worship the good God they did not believe in after having repented for their trespasses.
It would not shock me that much if many religious self-righteous bigots won’t inherit eternal life and will end up being no more i.e. returning to dust.

Let us give the say to the leader of the Church of Rome for a while:

 

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Naked Calvinism: my series on Calvinism

Calvinism is a theology according to which God controls everything which occurs in advance, including evil.

In the following series, I explain what Calvinism is and examine its philosophical as well as theological consequences.

A short introduction to Calvinism

Naked Calvinism: motivation and methodology

Naked Calvinism: on the sinful nature of man and Genesis

Naked Calvinism: the secret will of God

Why the difference between single and double predestination does not matter

A reformed preacher at the doors of heaven and hell.

The sad testimony of the daughter of a Calvinist apologist

Fostering communion and unity with committed Calvinists?

Predestined to eternally suffer? An interview with philosopher Jerry Walls

 

 

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An Unbelievable faith? An interview with Justin Brierley

I recently had the immense privilege to interview Justin Brierley who hosts the British show Unbelievable? bringing together Christians and non-Christians for fruitful conversations. Since the sound of our conversation is of very low quality, I transcribed it.

JustinVriel

Hi Justin, thanks for accepting this interview. Could you please tell us your own background?

Certainly. I was raised in a Christian family and so I really grew up going to Church and during my early teens Christianity was kind of an experiential thing to me. It was only in my later teens that I began feeling an intellectual curiosity and I read people like C.S. Lewis and others. I was also involved in sort of creative things in the university in relation to my Christian faith and so yeah it was how it began. I was accepted to Oxford university and several Christian activities there strengthened my faith. And so yeah, it was my background. After a subjective emotional experience I saw the rational foundations behind my faith.

Thanks! Would you say you’re an Evangelical Christian?

Yeah…I mean…like many people I tend to call myself merely a Christian. I’m orthodox in the sense that I believe the historical creeds of the Church, in the Incarnation and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Evangelical is a label I’m happy to go with. I might not be the same kind of Evangelicals as others. Maybe if you want to nuance that, I might call myself a “liberal Evangelical” which might be more accurate.

Okay. Do you believe, for example, in Biblical inerrancy?

Again, that’s a really interesting area. My thinking developed over the year, especially through Unbelievable?, the show that I hold. Now, instead of “inerrancy“, I’d prefer to talk about the Authority of Scriptures. For inerrancy itself is a label which has a certain amount of baggage on it. If inerrancy means that the Bible should be viewed as a 21-st century science textbook, then I reject it. The Bible uses metaphors appropriate to an ancient Jewish context which would have been accurate for that time. So I’d prefer to say that the Bible is authoritative and reliable in that way. I don’t think that inerrancy is required to get what we need, which is the facts about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and His claims of Lordship in our lives. Having said that, I would stand up for the Bible’s reliability in all kinds of areas because I think it’s incredibly well founded in all types of different ways. Many difficulties in Scripture that Sceptics point to can be overcome relatively easily by considering them as literature of their days and not necessarily expecting a twenty-first century biographical precision. I’m thinking on examples in the Gospels where there appears to be differences in the time line of events. We’re learning more and more that the Gospel writers adopted the standard biographical methods of their days. Why should we expect that they should not use the same elasticity found in other documents of that time period? It does not mean they’re not reliable. It’s complicated, but in the end I prefer to use the terms reliable and authoritative rather than inerrancy.

Yeah. What is the spiritual background of Premier Christian Radio?

Well Premier radio is full of people with lots of different Christian backgrounds. So we’re pretty much a multi-denominational station and we seek to serve here in the UK as part of the Christian Church. Some people might be surprised to learn we’ve Protestant Charismatic programs and some Roman Catholic teachings as well. So we’re quite broad in the community we’re seeking to reach here in the UK. Having said that, you can characterize most of the content as being broadly Evangelical. The station was founded 20 years ago. At the time we were the only Christian broadcaster in the whole united Kingdom. We’re still one of only few. So the situation is very different to the US where you’ve plenty of Christian TVs and radio channels.
So our mandate has been to be representative of the entire Church and we’ve always tried to do that.

What are the main aims of Unbelievable?

Unbelievable? is really a show where I wanted to break out of the Christian bubble. Premier Christian radio is very good at speaking to and resourcing Christians for their daily life and worship, ministry and work. But at the time I began with the program, we didn’t have specific things which speak to non-Christians. So I went to a chief-executive and asked if I could start a specific program which would bring people of faith or no faith into the studio and so we had a discussion. It started out as a live-show. Not everyone was in favour of it. Some of the listeners felt that, you know, atheists and agnostics have plenty of time on public shows and on the BBC, so why should we have them on a Christian radio? But to his credit the chief executive stood by the program. Eventually those who liked the program learned to listen, those who did not appreciate it learned to turn off the radio at that hour of Saturday. Over time the program went online and the podcast became quite popular since we have many pretty interesting guests and touch on many topics. The main aim is an Evangelistic one and I don’t make any apology for that. We want to show, through good dialogues with people from various perspectives, that Christianity is a reasonable faith and that you don’t have to throw your brain in a bin in order to be a Christian. That’s not to say there are no difficult areas, that is to say areas where I don’t have a real answer. Still, over the years I heard pretty much every possible objection to Christianity but I still feel that Christianity is the best narrative, the best way of approaching life. So I hope that the program is doing that for other persons too. I’m not expecting the program to do that for everyone.

The second thing that the program does is creating a space of dialogue within the Christian community. So we often have had lots of programs over the years. We hope people view it as place where disagreements are allowed. They also should realise that once you become a Christian you don’t automatically get a set of absolute rules and regulations. There is room within the Christian community to hold different views while still managing to call ourselves brothers and sisters in Christ. We sincerely hope we’re providing people with this space for making up their own mind while having these sorts of discussions.

Thanks! I find that great. What’s your take on the American culture war?

Well, I think that the UK is inevitably a very different kettle of fish to America. America has its own unique issues and its separation of Church and State. Obviously, the powerful Religious Right there does not exist in the UK. There are far less tensions here between politics, culture and Christianity than in America where there is a far wider dichotomy, if you like, between politics and the average Christian. As for me, I’m saddened in a way by the American culture war because so many of the atheists from America that I do encounter are atheists not necessarily because of intellectual objections to Christianity but because of what they perceive to be an illiberal agenda on the part of the Christian Right. That is what is parking their vehement reaction to religion. I think that’s a great shame. It is when Christianity is merged with the political power that the problems usually emerge. During the history of Christendom, we can see that things go wrong when our faith is used as a political force. Christianity is most compelling while working, to some extent, from the margin and that’s the situation we find ourselves in here in the UK.
Some people have been lamenting the fact that the British Church is declining. But I think this might be a good thing for the UK Church. People go to Church in the United Kingdom because they want to go to it. That wasn’t the case, you know, fifty years ago. The State used to have a huge amount of cultural Christianity within it. In the end, this part of Christianity is doomed to die off and that’s not a bad thing since I believe it is where all these culture wars come from. In a way it can be a more healthy expression of our convictions and have a more positive impact on culture which doesn’t stem from the power structure. So, these are some thoughts on how things are going on in that respect.

I totally agree with you! How does the modern British religious landscape look like nowadays?

Archbishop of York claims fall of Empire and rise of multiculturalism has destroyed Britain's 'big idea'

Well, here in the UK, as I mentioned, there has been a steep decline in Church going for several decades. As I said, I don’t see this as being a real cause for concern. What you’re seeing is that the Christian revivals of the nineteenth century and before (people like Wesley, Spurgeon and others) produced a generation of passionate Christianity. Yet that faith was not necessarily passed on or inherited in a living way. And so we’re inevitably seeing this sort of Christianity decline. Interestingly enough, we are currently seeing the emergence of many multicultural Churches. Owing to immigration, Christians from Africa, south America and from the West Indies are founding great communities and that’s shaping the British Church. It means that Christians with different backgrounds must work together. In the United States, many Churches don’t mix together. I think that here in the UK there is more of a cohesive field of Christianity because it’s a smaller community. That’s not to say that Christianity is in any way dead or dying in the UK. I think there are very exciting shifts of life within the British Church, there are some truly fantastic projects going on. Holy trinity Brompton, an Anglican Church is the centre of the Alpha courses, which many Churches all over the world use. It has been tremendously successful in introducing many people to the Christian faith. There are all sorts of other exciting projects within the Church which you don’t often see while looking at the headlines. When the Church get into the headlines here in the UK, it’s usually about Gays or about whether women should be allowed to become bishops and that sort of things. The reality is that there is much more going on than the things the newspapers pick up.

Yeah, of course! And how is the situation of Muslims in modern Britain? I mean that especially with respect to the terrorist attacks which have been going on during the last decades.

I think that multiculturalism naturally leads to many new communities springing up in the UK, many of which being Islamic. Britain has a nice history of welcoming and integrating diverse groups. There are different types of Islam out there. I think it has been a challenge to the UK because they tend to be more insular than other communities. The government has some troubles understanding and communicating with them. There are some great initiatives, here in the UK, for bringing different faith groups to talk to each others. Sadly, I think this doesn’t often have a massive influence on the mosques across the country…Some reports can be sensationalised. But there have been reports over the years of quite radicalised teachings in some mosques. They showed a fairly open stance to the public. But behind the closets you can find some quite worrying teachings going on. There has been, unfortunately, a number of Muslims from the UK who joined ISIS warriors in Syria and so on. So I think there are grounds for feeling worried. We need to do everything in our power to continue to communicate with these communities. We should not treat them as a monolithic ensemble. The British government ought to understand Islam and to not treat it as a blanket religion. There is a huge variety of different groups. They’re not all the same and they’ve different aims and objectives. It is a very tricky time in that sense here in the UK.

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Yeah I completely agree. The Islamic world is extremely diverse. Not all of them advocate violence against unbelievers. We should not punish peaceful Muslims for the misdeeds of extremists they themselves view as appalling and abhorrent.
To conclude this interview, could you please tell us what you’re up to?

What’s coming up? The show continue, we’ll have new exciting discussions and debates. I’ll do some shows interviewing people who had a Near Death Experience, which is quite an interesting phenomenon. There has recently been a major scientific study on that and we’ll be interviewing people who have been involved in it. We’re preparing the new Unbelievable for next year. That’s been an exciting part of what is being developed for the show. It’s a conference where everyone can come to see the reasonable and intellectual value of Christianity with top-speakers. I myself have been increasingly involved in another aspect of Première’s work which is Premier Christianity magazine. It has been formerly just called Christianity magazine. I became the senior editor of that fairly recently.

Great!

Yeah, and although I’ve been writing for the magazine for a number of years, this has been quite an interesting and challenging step, but I’m really enjoying it and I’m really bringing more and more of what I do on air into the magazine as well.
So, balancing these two things is my challenge at the moment. I want to keep the show fresh and interesting while upholding the standards of the magazine as we produce it each month.

Okay, so thank you very much for this interview! I wish you all the best.

Well, thank you very much for having me, Marc, and I wish you all the best too.

 

 

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Out of Eden: are we approaching a Golden Era?

Filmmaker Kevin Miller (whom I interviewed here) wrote an interesting new post on Patheos for progressive Christians.

We didn’t fall from Eden–we are slowly but surely crawling out of hell

US-ENERGY-OIL-KEYSTONE-PROTEST“A loathing of modernity is one of the great constants of contemporary social criticism.” So says Steven Pinker in the closing pages of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker, and many others, see such angst underlying many contemporary movements, including environmentalism, religious fundamentalism, aboriginal rights initiatives, and even zombie apocalypse fantasies. Though they look different on the surface, these trends all share one feature in common: a fall from Eden narrative. Supposedly, in some far-off, pre-modern age, we practiced ecological sustainability, family values, religious purity, economic equality or some other virtue. But technology destroyed all of that. Now we are picking our way through the rubble of the “downside of progress” with nothing but alienation, ennui, environmental despoliation, social pathology, fiscal rapacity and reality television to keep us warm at night.

the-fall-of-man-1570Interestingly, even the original Eden narrative can be interpreted along these lines as a “fall” from a pure hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agrarian/urban existence. After eating the forbidden fruit, Adam is expelled from the Garden and cursed to work the land: “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17).

God goes even further with Cain after Cain murders his brother Abel, saying not even the ground will yield a harvest for him. “Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:11-12). So Cain moves one step further away from the “purity” of a pre-agrarian lifestyle and founds a city, presumably to protect him and his family from his enemies.

The result of this descent from a pure existence in nature to one where humankind is enfolded by technology is a form of violence so ravenous that the only solution in the mind of the Creator is annihilation of virtually the entire human race. But not even that can solve the problem, because the moment humans are let loose on the planet again, they’re right back at it with their infernal technology, building the Tower of Babel in an attempt to unseat their Creator.

Tour_de_babelConcluding that “flooding an ideology out of existence” is futile, that even divine violence merely begets new and more complicated forms of violence, God attempts a different strategy with Abram, calling him away from human sacrifice and away from human civilization period. If Abram and his people are to encounter God, that can only happen in the wilderness. A return to Eden, if you will, which culminates with the wandering Israelites’ arrival in Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey. However, it has been seized by those nefarious users of technology–the Hittites, the Amorites, the Cannanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites. If the Israelites are to truly regain Eden, these techno-criminals have got to go.

I could go on with this interpretation, showing how the same anti-technology narrative might underlie the storming of Jericho, for example, which was done without weapons, or God’s warnings about not adopting a monarchial form of government, which would make the people subject not only to the king but also his machines of war. But that may be stretching things a little. My point is, if such an interpretation of even the original Fall narrative is at all correct, it would suggest that our pessimism about technology is nothing new. Perhaps a permanent aspect of the human psyche is a Janus-like tendency to walk backwards into the future, forever viewing the past through rose-colored glasses, because the reality of the future is simply too terrible to bear. Why is the future so terrible? Because that is where we will have to deal with the consequences of the mistakes we make in the present.

While I sympathize and often fall victim to this view, I see the “fall from Eden” narrative as one of the most prevalent and destructive myths afflicting our culture, because the minute we fall for it, the hunt for scapegoats begins. Who is responsible for our fall from grace? In previous generations, we tended to target witches, heretics, the Jews or even Satan, believing they had somehow “infected” our culture with their evil. If only these people/that enemy could  be eliminated, we could return to our original state of grace. The problem is, this so-called solution has never quite worked. Only in retrospect do we realize the futility of our efforts and the grievous consequences of our actions. And yet, we repeat them over and over again once a new enemy has been identified.

camThese days, for the most part our finger of accusation has shifted away from the perennial scapegoats of history to anything that’s big–big government, big pharma, big agriculture, big oil. In other words, the primary users–and abusers–of technology. They are the despoilers of the planet (never mind the fact they can’t survive without our complicity in terms of votes or dollars). If only we can find some way to stamp them out… You get the picture.

I see two forces at work beneath the fall from Eden narrative, particularly concerning our ambivalence toward technology. The first is our short cultural memory. If you read Pinker’s book or Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, for instance, you will quickly realize that romantic ideas of better days gone by are nothing but a cruel illusion. The history of humanity prior to innovations like modern medicine, electricity, fossil fuel-powered transportation, pesticides, fertilizers, etc. is a history of war, famine, disease, misery, suffering and death. I’m talking about 99.9% of human history here. Maybe more. As Pinker puts it, our ancestors

were infested with lice and parasites and lived above cellars heaped with their own feces. Food was bland and monotonous, and intermittent. Health care consisted of the doctor’s saw and the dentist’s pliers. Both sexes [and children] labored from sunrise to sundown, whereupon they were plunged into darkness. Winter meant months of hunger, boredom, and gnawing loneliness in snowbound farmhouses.

But it was not just mundane physical comforts that our recent ancestors did without. It was also the higher and nobler things in life, such as knowledge, beauty, and human connection.

Here is where unsentimental history and statistical literacy can change our view of modernity. For they show that nostalgia for a peaceable past is the biggest delusion of all. We know that native peoples, whose lives are romanticized in today’s children’s books, had rates of death from warfare that were greater than those of our world wars. The romantic visions of medieval Europe omit the exquisitely crafted instruments of torture and are innocent of the thirtyfold greater risk of murder in those times.

The moral commonplaces of our age, such as that slavery, war, and torture are wrong, would have been seen as saccharine sentimentality, and our notion of universal human rights almost incoherent. Genocide and war crimes were absent from the historical record only because no one at the time thought they were a big deal.

I could go on, but hopefully you get the picture. We may have invented the term genocide in the 20th century–and more efficient technology by which to carry it out–but the genocides we committed (are committing) are far from historical aberrations. They are merely business as usual under a new name. And the fact is, we are committing fewer and fewer of them than we ever did before.

ZombiesThe second factor that gives life to the fall from Eden narrative is our tendency to locate evil “out there” rather than within ourselves. We do this, because it is the path of least resistance. Defeating evil out there is far easier than confronting our own heart of darkness, which requires courage, humility and self-sacrifice. When faced with such a high calling, it’s so much easier to point the finger and pull the trigger. No need to think, no need to feel, no need to fear. We think we can defeat evil the same way we defeat zombies–with a bullet to the brain–a cinematic metaphor for the futility of trying to bomb an ideology out of existence. No matter how many zombies we kill, they just keep coming. And when we have to confront living, breathing humans who are not part of our little group, that’s when everything really breaks down.

Such apocalyptic fantasies aside, to quote Ben J. Wattenberg, “The good news is the bad news is wrong.” Contrary to some of our deepest held convictions, we didn’t fall from Eden. Instead, we have slowly but inexorably been crawling out of the hell of history. Much of the world is still mired deep within that hell, and there’s no guarantee we won’t all plunge back into it again (another fear manifested by zombie apocalypse fantasies), but it won’t be technology that takes us there. Rather, it will be our own pessimism, even as people claim their quest for Eden is bringing us closer to heaven. In truth, technology is our only ticket out of this hell, because technology is nothing but a manifestation of human ingenuity in the face of difficulty.

1280px-Roulette_-_detailAs science writer Ronald Bailey says, “Wagering against human ingenuity has always been a bad bet.” Unfortunately, anyone mired in the fall from Eden myth is placing this bet every day. They think they’re putting their money on black, but no matter how many times we spin the wheel, it’s guaranteed to keep coming up red.”


My response follows.

This is a nice post, Kevin!

I recently reviewed a book on Genesis paralleling your analysis on agriculture and hunting-gathering.

Ironically enough, the myth of the “sinful nature” we allegedly received from God Himself CANNOT be found within the text of Genesis

Yeah, it truly has devastating consequences. For it turns the Almighty into the author of sin since he could have decided not to curse the innocent descendants of Adam and Eve.
It is utterly disgusting and revolting to say that God would eternally torture us for sins we were bound to commit BY HIMSELF.

That said, we must keep in mind that Pinker is far from being objective and often confounds very speculative ideas with objective facts, like many other scholars working in the “science” of Evolutionary Psychology.

His statement that socialism is an anti-enlightenment force is both outrageous and historically ridiculous.

The Myth of Progress he defends can be dangerous as well.

Whilst physical violence might be in decline, there is no evidence that verbal violence is decreasing as well and that people are getting less selfish.

Actually, Pinker recognized elsewhere that our society is getting increasingly psychopathic.

So I’m not sure we really have strong grounds for feeling optimistic.

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Kevin added this to his post as a response:

One might argue that the “Myth of Progress” can be just as destructive and can just as easily lead to a hunt for scapegoats–who is inhibiting our forward momentum? Eliminate them! I don’t deny this possibility. However, I can’t help but think that in the long run, an optimistic approach to life that encourages ingenuity and innovation and presumes the best of others will not only lead to a reduction in scapegoating, it will also take us further than an approach that is constantly tries to rein people in for fear of what they might do if they take hold of the unbridled freedom with which we have apparently been bestowed.

The golden era WP by realityDream

The problem is that I just don’t manage to get optimistic. Granted, there have been strong moral progresses in some areas in the Western World. But the contrary can be observed in others.

Wild capitalism is running amok.

In Germany, mentally handicapped children are now being almost systematically aborted like during the rule of the Nazis.

Bullying, selfishness and callous indifference are not diminishing in inter-human relationships.

Far from it.

But I guess this just shows I’m a thirty years old living fossil from an ancient age 🙂

Maybe my mind needs to be reeducated in some manner. Is there anyone to help me?