Monday, October 30, 2006

The wrong end of the problem

[I posted this to a discussion that criticized a liberal writer named Amy Sullivan. I don't really agree with Sullivan's arguments in general, but the post, by Matthew Yglesias, seemed to have grasped the wrong end of the problem of interfaith dialogue, to say the least. Read on for a discussion of minority status, worldview confusion, and hell.]

Following MQ's 1:02 comment, it is very different on my side of the fence. I'm a Protestant in Utah, surrounded by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I and people like me have experienced intolerance based on religion in America, the real kind, not the whiny "War on Christmas" stuff. For example, my relatives have been screened, obliquely but obviously, for their LDS religion or lack thereof in job interviews. At the same time, I recognize the earnest desire of my neighbors to be close to God.

One thing living here has taught me is that there is no dividend in criticizing people based on how wacky you think their beliefs are. As an example of a belief that was foreign to me, roughly, Mormons believe that eternal godhood, eternal family, and eternal procreation await in the best of three heavens for families who are faithful to the church's teachings in their lifetime.

But these beliefs don't seem wacky to them at all: they suffuse the air the Mormons breathe, or if you like, they are shot through the lenses through which Mormons see the world. It all seems very natural to them. If I tried to criticize their belief starting from Protestant premises, my argument would come across as nonsense to them.

And unfortunately, that's the way the post's argument comes across to me.

On the other hand, the evangelical view of this matter is, in fact, completely absurd. ... On this view, a person who led an entirely exemplary life in terms of his impact on the world (would an example help? Gandhi, maybe?) but who didn't accept Jesus as his personal savior would be subjected to a life of eternal torment after his death and we're supposed to understand that as a right and just outcome. That, I think, is seriously messed up. [excerpt from original post]

I bolded the key phrase. You are not supposed to understand. The believers are supposed to understand. Their belief coheres, has its own internal consistency and logic. It all seems absurd to you. It all seems very natural to them.

In fact, this very issue of damnation is taken up early in church history in a notoriously difficult passage in the letter to the Romans (chapters 9 through 11). It takes the view, first, that if God wanted to, he probably could have made a world where some people can not make it to heaven, in order to provide object lessons to the people who can. And, the argument goes, if you think that's unfair, tough, that would just be how it is. "But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?" You criticize what you do not understand. Put another way, given a prior assumption that Christianity is broadly true, your argument is arrogantly presumptive about the way God must work.

The second part of the passage is about what actually happened: God's careful plan, through the history of Israel and the action of Jesus, to instead offer mercy to all: "For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all." This is close to my view of the matter. How "mercy on them all" plays out in the real world is an exercise for the reader.

The meaning of hell in Christianity is not cut and dried. It has been controversial and difficult for 2000 years. But it will only be a confused muddle if you come at it from secular assumptions and ethical systems and presume to judge it from the outside.

In fact, it is the same muddle, in reverse, when Christians try to persuade you that you are in danger of hellfire because "the Bible says so". From their point of view, the argument is practically over. From your point of view, it has barely begun.

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