2006-09-08 : Picky-choosy religion, 3 views

Sydney's (and others') view is:

BIG WARNING: And if your avowed beliefs include casually mixing and matching mythologies and rituals from different sources you don't particularly understand, you're playing with fire.

Meg's and Charles' (and others') view is:

On Cthulhu worshiping Chaos magicians, the one somewhat Cthulhu worshiping somewhat Chaos magician I know (I think she worships Azathoth more than Cthulhu, but she does like tentacles...) definitely derives a good deal of strength and functionality from her practice.


If you believe your cats are worthy of worship, and that inspires you to be a more compassionate, thoughtful, connected person, is that wrong? What if it's your stuffed toy cat?

And mine (and others'), which I never happened to articulate in the big parent thread, is:

Taking a powerful symbol out of context robs it of its power. A contextless symbol is ashes, not fire. There's no danger to your psychology or your soul; the only danger is that you're wasting your time. You would've been just as good or just as broken a person without that symbol as you are with it. It's symbols in context that are dangerous, and firey, and to be handled with caution and extreme reservation - and of course the only religious symbols that we can take in context are the ones we're immersed in. Christianity for all of us Americans, plus various other bodies of symbols as our individual upbringings provide.

More concisely: being a Christian among Christians is more dangerous than worshiping Dread Cthulhu. Worshiping Dread Cthulhu is too baseless to matter; it's just a color of paint on the car of your soul.

I don't see any reconciliation of the three views, but here's a place we can talk about them if we want to.

1. On 2006-09-08, timfire said:

If you believe your cats are worthy of worship, and that inspires you to be a more compassionate, thoughtful, connected person, is that wrong? What if it's your stuffed toy cat?

This is a VERY big *IF*—-if your (toy-)cat inspires you to be a better more spiritual person, then yes, it's worthy of worship. The real question is whether mixing and matching religious traditions honestly leads to a more spiritual happier life.

In all honestly, for some people, it does. But will it be that way for most? I don't know the answer. Some people have been hurt by established religion, and the only way for them to recapture spirituality is to distance themselves from established religion. That's cool and understandable. But I've also met many with that attitude that are doing it for reasons other than an honest desire to improve themselves. They're looking for an easier life without having to give up certain things they enjoy, but might be actually hurting them (like bad relationships or messed-up priorities).

I believe that those people with an honest spiritual desire tend to sort that stuff out in the end. As Jesus himself said, "a tree will be known by its fruit" (or something like that). Those people who display an honest, err, goodness are all right by me. But that type of honest desire is rare, even among the religiously "devout".

This is a very difficult but important discussion, and I suspect one without easy answers.


2. On 2006-09-08, Meguey said:

So here I am, 8 years old, and I've fully absorbed, perhaps memorized, D'Laeres Greek & Roman Mythology, D'Laeres Norse Gods & Giants, various native Indian legends, and a book of Egyptian Gods & Goddesses. I've heard of Jesus and Moses and Noah, but I can't tell you crap about them. I like the story of Enoch and Issac, for some weird reason very possibly centering on the humanizing bit about lentil stew.

Based on the blended cosmology I have, what does my interaction with the Divine look like?

I understand that my place in nature is not as supreme ruler, but one of the beings on Earth, gifted with a tiny piece of wisdom that allows self-reflection and the ability to wonder.

I understand the Divine to be as close as an ant and as distant as the stars, ever present and continual, but not without humor.

I understand that mostly I'm on my own, but prayer helps me feel calmer and more secure, and I can see the similarities enough to use the name that most fits the aspect of the Divine I wish to address, much in the way my family has many nicknames for me.

I understand to be glad I am alive, healthy, and mostly happy, and to act to protect the world I live in by being respectful and thoughtful.

I understand the need to care for others, and that in doing so I am acting more akin to kinder aspects of the Divine.

I understand that even gods are punished for wrong-doing.

I understand that balance is the way of things, and all dicotomy is illusion.

The only part in which I agree with Sydney's warning is the word 'casually'. Weekend shamans and mail-order monks make me grit my teeth. If you've put in the time and contemplation to absorb and understand any aspect of life or culture, and it holds meaning for you, and you want to include it in your spiritual practice, and it harms none, go to it. There are a million things people do that get incorporated into their spiritual life. Gardening, yoga, and singing with frinds come to mind. Sure, my 8 year old understanding of Greek and Norse and Egyptian religious traditions wasn't complete, but it worked. And I still pray to Hermes the god of travelers when the road is slippery.


3. On 2006-09-08, Brennan Taylor said:

I take my religion very seriously, and I think everyone should. If you don't, it's not really religion.

That said, I also believe that it is something you find inside yourself. You can seek guidance and help from other people, and you can find deep resonance in symbols, but it is ultimately a personal relationship with the divine.

I share a lot of the leveling instincts of Quakerism, and I totally reject any authority telling me what to believe (including tradition). I don't mind mixing and matching the various symbols I encounter. I find the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Hanuman showing me Rama and Sita in his heart equally, deeply resonant. What they mean to me is similar to Sydney's declaration of faith: I'm not sure how I know, but I know they are important.


4. On 2006-09-08, Sydney Freedberg said:

Tim: You make large quantities of sense.

Meguey: Your prose trembles on the verge of poetry. It's a joy to read.

Everyone: My essay on salvation, damnation, and justification (in the other thread) ended up containing most of my answer to this question (heading #4), but if anyone has any specific questions for me on that aspect, feel free to pose them here.


5. On 2006-09-08, Jason Larke said:

I rarely comment here, but I admit that I was about to leap into the fray and castigate Sydney before his explanatory post about the leap of faith. I absolutely agree that to take a mashup of other people's ideas and symbols and embrace them totally, truly giving yourself over to them, is a recipe for disaster.

I myself am a fanatical atheist. I have never had the slightest spiritual sensation or inclination, in Church, in the presence of my daughter, or anywhere else. It's still clear to me that possessing deep values without either understanding them nor having any clear insight into the behavior of other people who've embraced them is dangerous. I don't say that it must always lead to disaster, but I would say that you can't know where it will lead. You don't know if the imagery in that NIN video appealed to you because you think Trent is hot or because it touched on some dimply recalled memory of childhood pain. Neither hotness not childhood pain seem like good guides to a fulfilling life, though.

Side note: I have a BA in philosophy. I find that the two things I took away from it were a deep affection for Existentialism and a near-total inability to make definite statements, except that my parents overpaid for what I got.


6. On 2006-09-09, Sydney Freedberg said:

Jason: I have never had the slightest spiritual sensation or inclination, in Church, [or] in the presence of my daughter....

Do you love your daughter?

I'm going to resume the answer is "yes." If so, guess what: That is a spiritual sensation. And don't say, "Oh, that's just instinct": The spiritual is rooted in the physical, at least for humans; your soul and your body are simply two organs of the same being.

Lazy preachers and bad movies have gotten people to image that a "spiritual experience" has to involve shimmering light and a boys' choir singing a capella on the soundtrack. Bullshit. Genesis says God created us out of mud, which is as good a term for the "primordial soup" postulated by paleontologists as you'd expect in a 3,000-year-old document.

Brennan: I totally reject any authority telling me what to believe (including tradition)

Let me press you on what you mean by "any authority." Do you mean you reject an authority figure saying "Do this! Think that!" without bothering to explain? Or do you mean no one is an authority in the sense of knowing more than you about any spiritual subject, so you don't have to listen to anybody?


7. On 2006-09-09, Sydney Freedberg said:

Oh, and Vincent, in his very first statement: Taking a powerful symbol out of context robs it of its power.....It's symbols in context that are dangerous...and of course the only religious symbols that we can take in context are the ones we're immersed in. Christianity for all of us Americans, plus various other bodies of symbols as our individual upbringings provide.

Vincent, this is fine phrasing but sloppy thinking, and I've rarely seen the latter from you. If I have any response to a particular symbol (or text, or ritual) at all besides "huh?", then it by definition has some power to affect me: That's what my response is! If my response is strong enough that I decide to remember that symbol, let alone incorporate it into some kind of personal theology, then I am giving it more and more power.

Certainly, the symbol may well not mean to me what it meant to people immersed in the culture that created it. Indeed, there may be only a tiny sliver of the original meaning being communicated that becomes the seed crystal for a huge amount of my own interpretation and projection. But even a small seed crystal can impart its structure, good or evil, to a large amount of hitherto uncrystallized material.

And unless the symbol in question is so abstract as to be a kind of Rorschach inkblot, then it probably conveys more than a sliver of its meaning across cultural divides. Human beings are not so different from each other, after all. We fear snakes and the dark by instinct; we are upset by the sight of the dead bodies of our own kind, even when replicated beautifully in miniature upon a silver cross; most of us respond to small children and babies in their mothers' arms with affection and protectiveness; we think stars and bright colors are pretty.

If the idea of Dread Cthulhu didn't have the power to affect people—people who can't possibly have been immersed from childhood in Lovecraft's symbolism, since he made it up less than a century ago—then it would just be a character in a long-forgotten, rather poorly written short story by an obscure and mentally ill author. If the image of the Madonna holding the Christ Child did not strike some instinctive chord entirely independent of theology, it would not be so common in artwork appealing to the illiterate and barely-educated who have formed the mass of humanity in all ages—nor would it be so similar to pagan mother-goddess imagery that has very different theological associations but very similar emotional resonances.


8. On 2006-09-09, Vincent said:

Oh! No, I'm just saying that there's a big difference between cheap thrills and psychological transformation. People respond to things all kinds of ways, and the vast majority of our responses are not serious work. This is totally true of what we "worship" - you and I both know that there's a difference between saying you worship something and actually worshiping it.


9. On 2006-09-09, Tris said:

I reject the assertion that love is a spiritual experience.  I believe it is a mix of mental and physical experience - from the chemicals in my body, and from the pathways in my brain, or more poetically, from the way I feel, and the way I think about my beloved ones.

In fact, from my perspective, adding spirituality to this cheapens it.  I love my fiancee (as of a couple of weeks ago :-D ) fiercely, not because of any exterior divine influence, but because of how she is, what she does, how much she cares for things...

I'm sitting here looking at her, and I swell with joy, not because of anything external to her, but entirely because of how truely awesome she is.  She can do that - it doesn't require anything more.


10. On 2006-09-09, Blankshield said:


Tris, I think you and Sydney have different definitions of spiritual.

Me, I agree with both of you.  I don't need God or anything beyond the people I love to know and experience that love.  But that doesn't mean love isn't spiritual.



11. On 2006-09-09, timfire said:


I think there's a common misunderstanding that equates spirituality with supernatural-(err)-ism. I say this as someone who struggled with understanding just what "spirituality" meant myself. When one speaks of the supernatural, you're talking about external intelligence or forces, like angels, demons, fate, ghosts, etc.

Spirituality, however, refers to a, err, dimension of life or reality. It is something inward, intuitive, and innate. You can define spirituality secularly and say it is a construct that simply describes the sum of our being. If you believe in a soul, you can say that spirituality is the condition of our souls or at least refers to that dimension or level that the soul exists on.

(Words here fail me, and I fear I'm doing a bad job explaining myself.)

For now let's say its simply the sum of our being (which may or may not include a soul). As such, our spiritual experience is tied up with our emotions, intellect, and physical well-being. (Just as our emotions are tied up with our intellect and physical experience.) Taking care of our bodies is a spiritual practice, for example, as taking care of one component of our being affects the overall sum. (And here the Bible agrees. The Old Testament, with its various dietery laws and such among other things acknowledges that our physical experience affects our spiritual one.)

Thus, saying that loving your daughter or spouse is spiritual doesn't mean you are experiencing something external to yourself. It just means that it is an experience that touches your being at some deep level.


12. On 2006-09-09, Sydney Freedberg said:

Thank you, Tim. Again, you speak much sense.

I'm going to go all geeky here and quote Star Wars—in fact, I'm even going to quote Yoda, which is nearly the nadir of geekery:

"Luminous beings are we..."

Now, Yoda goes on to say "...not this crude matter," like a good flesh-hating Platonist or Gnostic rather than an earthy Hebrew, and he's teaching Mark Hammill crazy psychic mind powers that don't exist, but that line has stuck with me.

Remember your body is mostly empty space, a loose structure of atoms held together by electromagnetic interactions so powerful that they create the effect we call a "solid surface." Remember each of those atoms is itself composed of protons, electrons, and (except for any hydrogen you have around) neutrons, which are as I understand it little more than standing waves of energy, vibrating in place. And by E=MC(2) (can't do superscripts on this computer, sorry, but I meant "squared"), that energy contained within you is more powerful than an atomic bomb.

That all this shimmering, shuddering energy holds together, let alone moves, eats, breathes, thinks, and feels, is staggering. You are a miraculous being. We all are.

The physical is spiritual, and God saw that it was good.


13. On 2006-09-09, Sydney Freedberg said:

Vincent: I'm just saying that there's a big difference between cheap thrills and psychological transformation....there's a difference between saying you worship something and actually worshiping it.

Understood. Someone who sincerely, passionately worships Jesus Christ is going to be more powerfully affected for the better than someone who mouths the words and wonders what's for lunch. Someone who sincerely, passionately worships Satan is going to be more powerfully affected for the worse than someone who just wanted to wear black all the time and piss off his parents.

But even "cheap thrills" can build up to "psychological transformation" over time. In fact, I would argue that most psychological change (especially damaging change) occurs slowly, bit by bit, precisely because the person involved is not really paying attention to what's going on in his or her own mind (lack of "intentionality" and self-reflection) and doesn't realize that repetition is solidifying an optional behavior into habit.

The man who starts riding his bike to work on sunny days and slowly gets stronger and stronger, and more and more willing to bike in bad weather, may suddenly realize a year later, "Look, honey! I can wear my old pants again! I must've lost 10 pounds since last summer—guess all that biking paid off!" Or it could be he started trying to remember to smile and say hello to people in the company cafeteria, and a year later he suddenly realizes he has a lot more friends.

The rebellious kid who has just one cigarette, to prove he's cool, and then another a week later, and another three days later, and another a day later, may suddenly realize down the road, "Shit! I've got lung cancer." The person who decides, "Hey! I'll worship Cthulhu! That'd be cool and ironic and unconventional!" may end up the same way.


14. On 2006-09-09, Eero Tuovinen said:


I'm an avid reader of Vincent's, although I rarely have anything particularly meaningful to say myself, here. But with another of these religion-discussions boiling, I got inspired to write just a bit about the topic. (Religion is one of those things everybody wants to discuss given a worthwhile and secure opportunity.) I hope it's well received.

First, an impression: man, you're all religion-whacko, my American friends! I have relatively (for a secular Nordic guy) lots of friends in RL who consider themselves Christian, and that amounts to... three, I think. The great majority of people I know don't have any kind of convinction about these things. And here I'm reading posts from my favourite designers, business partners and internet friends, one after another telling how they "draw deep comfort from spirituality". Like, don't you have any secular humanists out there? That's pretty scary.

That said, let me give my own big explanation for why I haven't given mysticism (as an ingredient of personal worldview, that is) another thought for years and years. It's pretty simple, and at least it's rather different from most of this discussion. Hopefully still relevant, though.

So I was raised as an Evangelist-Lutheran the way most children in Finland are. I never, ever felt that this was a particularly religious background; I couldn't tell you if my parents take the stuff seriously for instance, all I know is that my own religious experiences as a child were entirely of private nature (apart from some emotional opportunism by the pastor of the parish now and then). We never discuss religion in my family, for instance, now that I'm "mature enough to decide for myself about going to church". As far as I'm concerned, the Finnish culture of the moment is best described as "secular, defaulting to Christian if you're interested in that kind of thing".

I went through a gradual secularisation of my ethics and worldview as a teenager, starting from the moment I got interested in the ontological side of Christianity (as in, does Jesus exist or not) and peaking in my fundamental revelation about Christianity. I'll share the latter here: Christianity is utterly irrelevant ethically, even if it might or might not have positive effects on everyday morality of it's proponents. If the only thing you're worried about is discerning good and evil (like me), then you can just forget all those myths, they don't have any logical connection to the ethical question.

Now, based on the interesting discussion here, the above probably requires some elaboration. You see, ever since casting aside the idea of belonging into the formal institution of the church (getting out was easy to rationalize, it's more money in my own pocket when I stop supporting an organization I have no faith in) I've been agnostic as far as metaphysics go. Furthermore, the justification for my agnosticism is that after careful deliberation I found that God/Jesus/Bible are utterly irrelevant for morality and ethics. Like, if you stop to think about it, what does the existence of eternal life, redemption or heaven have to do with right and wrong? My conclusion was that confusing those two is just muddy thinking, and whatever my ethics, they would need to work without resorting to the naturalistic fallacy. (I hope it's pretty clear to everybody that basing your ethics on something promised in the Bible or other religious sources is at best exactly that and at worst deduction from false axioms.) Like, if I'm to have a good reason to not chop off the heads of my family members one dark and stormy night (assuming such an urge should surprise me), I certainly hope to have something more compelling than "eternal hellfire" to keep me from doing it. An uppity and shortsighted bastard like me, the threat of punishment does nothing. I need solid ethical reasons, not a father figure taking away my responsibility.

Now, after leaving aside religion as a factor from my ethical pondering I've been pretty happily busy with uncovering the meaning of good life, good habit (in the socratean sense) and so on completely detached from mythology. Nowadays I interpret religiousity completely from the viewpoint of aesthetics, incidentally: as far as I can see, the decisions and feelings people have based on religious tradition, community and ritual are easily and satisfactorily explained via standard aesthetic theory. Theology as a subcategory of aesthetics, if you will.

Incidentally, I've been toying with the idea of getting back into the religion game during the last couple of years. I like to read religious texts of all kinds, and I admire some of the virtues and ethics outlined in different religions. So I'm naturally curious about the experience of doing some worship, you see. I'm very satisfied with the analytic approach I'm taking to the job, too: the trick in getting something good out of religion is to construct your religion to support fundamentally solid ethics. In my case I'm pretty sure those are nothing like the Christian love-fest, though; I agree with Sydney about how different religions can mold your worldview to different directions, but I have great difficulty accepting that his Christian values as enshrined in the teachings of Jesus Christ are in any way superior to some other ethical ideas when they are taken ceteris paribus, separate from the myths.

Accordingly, if I were to start some religious practice... it'd probably be something that enshrines honor, truth in action and all that romantic knightly jazz, they're all virtues I can get behind. Less of the Christian submission thing, definitely. Probably something akin to asatru, actually, except taking on an aesthetic tradition belonging to another nation is just ridiculous. So I'd probably end up with something quite close to the "old faith" of Finland, freezing my butt off in the winter night wrestling bears to regain forgotten lore (old Finnish religion was really big on lore, if you didn't know) or something like that.

So yeah, you could say that I'm considering becoming the little bathtub chemist of religion to mix up something useful for my own amusement. Amusement = something perhaps potentially useful, but by no means absolutely necessary in living a good life. I don't know, it'd probably be too much bother to figure out such a religion just for me. I'd have to become all preachy and make sure others benefit, too. The same dilemma all artists face, really: no point in creating a work if you don't have distribution worked out.

So yes, that's more or less the "Short Course to Intellectual Agnosticism", I guess. Just separate ethics and religion and relegate the latter to the realm of performance art, where it belongs. Makes life much simpler and removes the possibility of being led astray by religious authority, whether scripture, tradition or current authority figures. I'm sure you people who live every day with religious movements that have political relevancy (scary, that) have some razor-sharp apologetics against the idea. I'd love to hear them. The religious man is almost like a dying breed hereabouts, and those few I'm friends with don't really want to get into a discussion about the stuff. (Which I kinda admire for it's single-mindedness and willingness to subdue the ego; it's already been touched upon in the excellent discussion here that apologetics endanger your own faith as well.)


15. On 2006-09-09, joshua m. neff said:

Like, don't you have any secular humanists out there?

Right here! And everything you said sums up very well how I feel. Religion, mythology, rituals and symbols are all aesthetic choices for me.

Superman is much more relevant to me morally, ethically and spiritually than any established religion. (And no, I'm not being the least bit ironic or facetious. I'm absolutely serious.)

But then, I think the only meaning religions, mythologies, rituals and symbols have are the meanings we individuals give them.


16. On 2006-09-10, Rev. Raven Daegmorgan said:


I think you might enjoy studying Buddhist philosophy. Its basic teachings—the things that aren't built up out of thousands of years of religious tradition—but the basic teachings of Buddha, are music to my real-world, results-oriented mind.

Buddha was a scientist. And I'm not the least bit kidding when I say that. He was a student of humanity, and he wasn't looking for God or trying to tell anyone who God was (or even if God existed). All that mattered was understanding and reducing suffering, both your own and that of others, in the here and now. It was eminently practical and rational.

He puts forth thinking and understanding as the primary part of achieving this goal. He states not to believe anything he has to say without testing it yourself, and abandoning it if it doesn't work. He says, about religion, about his teachings, that they are only a small part of truth—like the leaves on one tree in a forest.

The rationalist in me loves Buddha—he's one of my heroes, right next to Einstein—because he was a no-nonsense religious figure, he was all about ethics, about empathy, about worrying about the here and now and not some unknown afterlife or spirit realm (even if various sects of Buddhism have since become swamped in ritual and tradition and added these aspects).


17. On 2006-09-10, Sydney Freedberg said:

Eero, I'm not particularly interested in discussing ethics. Most traditions do the general moral principles pretty well—don't kill people, don't lie, treat others as you would be treated, and so on, what C.S. Lewis called "the great moral platitudes." It's doing the right thing, right now, for a specific person in a specific situation, that's the crunch, anyway. (And why I enjoy "thematic" aka "Narrativist" aka "Story Now" roleplay).

What I get from Christianity that I can't get anywhere else as well is the strength to try to live up to those ethics in spite of all my human failings.


18. On 2006-09-10, Curly said:

Regarding toy cat worship, please consider Alan Moore— who worships a Roman snake god named Glycon who he knows full-well was exposed to be a hand puppet in the 2nd century A.D.

Regarding "casually mixing and matching mythologies and rituals from different sources you don't particularly understand, you're playing with fire"—well, that's Eve biting the apple.  In other words the human condition.  A toy cat that's loooong out of the box.  A silly thing to warn against.  Like telling children not to read, because they don't know what all the words mean yet.

Regarding Cthulhu:

If you've ever met subgenii, they were probably all too similar to nerds who think Dork Tower is a laff riot.  But the book is really worth considering.  A legitimate alternative to the dreary prose of both Episcopalians and Unitarians.  Honest:

Another county heard from.


19. On 2006-09-10, Meguey said:

"If the image of the Madonna holding the Christ Child did not strike some instinctive chord entirely independent of theology, it would not be so common in artwork appealing to the illiterate and barely-educated who have formed the mass of humanity in all ages—nor would it be so similar to pagan mother-goddess imagery that has very different theological associations but very similar emotional resonances."

Sydney, I seriously hope you are not saying that sacred images of a mother and child are all pointing at Christianity! *OF COURSE*  they invoke deep emotional resonances. I mean, it's LIFE right there. I don't even get how it's that different theologically - it's the mother of all and the divine child. Isis and Osiris even hits the death-resurection of the divine son, and would have been one of the most familiar symbols to the new religion.


20. On 2006-09-10, Vincent said:

I think that the Church of the Subgenius is brilliant, relevant, sharp, and very pointed.

I'd be a Subgenius myself, except that I also think that the Church of the Subgenius best serves the generation before mine (the one between my parents' and mine, people born in the 60s). That may be the same as saying that the Church of the Subgenius was most relevant and pointed in the 80s, not the 90s.


21. On 2006-09-10, Sydney Freedberg said:

Meg: Sydney, I seriously hope you are not saying that sacred images of a mother and child are all pointing at Christianity!

Oh, no, not at all. I'm saying there's inherent power to that image that appeals powerfully to people, and does independently of having been "immersed" (to use Vincent's term I was disagreeing with) in a particular cultural context that taught them how to respond.


22. On 2006-09-10, Curly said:


How old are the people who are giving your Minister Jon grief?

Are the part of that generation between your parents and yourself?

Just a hunch.


23. On 2006-09-10, Tris said:

tim - that's fine, although I don't see a need to call something spiritual when I mean important, or deep; but in a discussion about religion, worship and belief, spiritual has connotations - it's largely these I was objecting to if that makes sense.


24. On 2006-09-11, Vincent said:

Curly: no, they're mostly much older, with some younger than me. I think. In fact I'm just guessing. I really do not care who's on whose side.


25. On 2006-09-11, Curly said:

After mentioning the Church of the Subgenius here, I did some googling and postcast-listening—to re-acquaint myself with their activities.

I'm ashamed-as-an-American to report that a woman named Rachel Bevilacqua recently lost custody of her 10 year old son in a case where her Subgenius membership was presented as evidence against her.

After the exhibits were entered, Judge James P. Punch announced that the images were "so disturbing" that he had to take a recess to compose himself.  When he returned, he heard testimony from Jeff Jary and Rachel Bevilacqua.  His Honor interrupted Jeff's lawyer to pose his own questions for Ms. Bevilacqua about the pictures, repeatedly asking "Why a goat?" and demanding that Rachel explain what was humorous in each of the photographs.  Judge Punch became visibly angry and ended the hearing with a verbal outburst calling Ms. Bevilacqua a "pervert" and accusing the X-Day festival of being a venue for "sex orgies".  He then ordered that Rachel Bevilacqua was to have no contact with her son from that moment on, not even in writing.

She's the woman in the macrame miniskirt.

Anybody familiar with the D&D/Satanism scares of the 80's should feel a chill.  Gamers could easily lose their kids on similar grounds.  kpfs!

Also, pursuant to recent threads here:

Rachel Bevilacqua testified that she had previously joined an organized christian church "after seeing a true dedication in the congregation's pastor to the creation of a group that would do needed charity and civil rights work in the community, as well as spread the Anglican message of tolerance and openness to all seekers"


26. On 2006-09-11, sammy said:

Uh oh. Now I have to jump back in.

Background - I am Jewish in upbringing, flirted for a while with neo-pagan/wicca/what have you, but have always been mostly agnostic. So color me secular humanist.

Do you love your daughter?

I'm going to resume the answer is "yes." If so, guess what: That is a spiritual sensation. And don't say, "Oh, that's just instinct": The spiritual is rooted in the physical, at least for humans; your soul and your body are simply two organs of the same being.

I realize you were talking to someone else, but: I have a daughter too, whom I love very much. She was born very prematurely, and spent the first 82 days of her life in neo-natal intensive care.  There were a couple of occasions upon which I was sure that she wasn't going to make it, to the point where I was starting to mentally rehearse how I would break it to family and friends that she'd died.

Of course, she didn't die: she'll be 2 soon, and is smart and funny and beautiul. But during that dark time, I spent some time praying, telling God that I'd do anything he wanted of me - sell my possesions and give the money to charity, stop touching myself, whatever - if he'd just let my daughter live.

After I'd had some time to think about it, I couldn't help coming to one conclusion: that if this had been "God's way" of bringing me closer to my daughter, or my wife, or him, fuck him: I wanted no part.

You can call the love between a father and daughter spiritual if you like. But to try and connect that with anything else, most especially like a God in the terms which you seem to believe in him, is foolishness.


27. On 2006-09-11, Vincent said:

Sam: yes.


28. On 2006-09-12, Sydney Freedberg said:

Sam: I spent some time praying, telling God that I'd do anything he wanted of me - sell my possesions and give the money to charity, stop touching myself, whatever - if he'd just let my daughter live. After I'd had some time to think about it, I couldn't help coming to one conclusion: that if this had been "God's way" of bringing me closer to my daughter, or my wife, or him, fuck him: I wanted no part.

I wouldn't either. I don't think He does that. I don't think He is interested in bargaining with us at all, because there's nothing to bargain with on either side: We don't have anything to offer that He doesn't already have except for our love; He does not offer anything more or less than Himself. And I certainly don't think He puts a cosmic cross-hairs on specific people to prove spiritual points to those around them.

My best guess is the cosmic reason "why" your daughter was born early is that biological systems have the freedom to function or fail in their sphere that people have in their, much larger sphere: Cancer is to the set of all cells as child molesters are to the set of all people. Which means my answer boils down to "God created a good universe in which shit happens."

That doesn't solve "the problem of evil" worth a damn, of course, since it just pushes the question back a step, to why God created the universe like that (don't ask me). But at least it spares us from contorting our minds around the strange idea of God torturing us for our own good.

And of course I'm very glad your child is alive and well and glorious. My 2 and a half-year old is the shining center of my life.


29. On 2006-09-12, Jye Nicolson said:


My reaction to mashup religion or choosing to worship your stuffed cat or whatever is instinctively to not treat it as religion.

If you tell me you're religious, I automatically get a little angry at you!  That's because I feel religion always entails willful ignorance about reality, and usually entails allegiance to an unelected alien power.

If you then follow up with "I'm religious for Cthulu, and my cat!" then I'm pretty sure you're not doing either of the bad things I mentioned above.  I'll feel like you're really saying "My cat, Cthulu and religious trappings are all really cool".

And I'll agree with you (except for the cat; I'm not a pet person).  I loved Evangelion too.  But I'm not going to take your religious assertions seriously, which is great because it means I'm not upset at you for being a willing slave of the Shab-al Hiri roach.

Normally I don't make a big point of this sort of thing (I usually try to avoid discovering people's religious leanings unless I'm fairly close to them), but this is a VERY open group of threads, so I thought I'd share.


30. On 2006-09-12, Sydney Freedberg said:

Jye, "willful ignorance" I can buy—there's a perfectly plausible and reasonable argument that the material world is all that exists, I just don't happen to agree wiht it.

But "allegiance to an unelected alien power"—huh? Are you suggesting that no religion is legitimate unless its adherents get to vote on their god? That's equivalent to saying no baby should be born until it can sign an informed consent document saying it approves of the parents it's going to have. At least God gives us a choice whether we obey Him or not, whether we love Him or not: Most parents aren't so accomodating with their children.

It's not as if God is some kind of Third World despot who seized power over the universe and set aside proper electoral democracy. He made the universe. He encompasses the universe: Everything good in it is simply a sub-set of His goodness. If we held an election for Supreme Being, there'd be only one qualified candidate.


31. On 2006-09-12, sammy said:

I wouldn't either. I don't think He does that. I don't think He is interested in bargaining with us at all, because there's nothing to bargain with on either side: We don't have anything to offer that He doesn't already have except for our love; He does not offer anything more or less than Himself...

That doesn't solve "the problem of evil" worth a damn, of course, since it just pushes the question back a step, to why God created the universe like that (don't ask me). But at least it spares us from contorting our minds around the strange idea of God torturing us for our own good.

Which is, more or less, where you lose me. You say there's someone out there, but I can't see him. He wants me to love him, and in return he'll love me back. I suppose it's a comforting thought: that somewhere out there there's an unknowable entity that loves me. But I have a wife and a daughter and even a cat who are actually here, right now, and I know they love me, because they tell me and demonstrate it on a regular basis.

So either there is a God out there who cares about me, or there isn't. But you'd think he could, you know, call, or something. A fuckin' Hallmark card would do it, dude. And of course, I know that this goes back to whether or not you choose to believe (for me, not really so much of a choice), but to get back to my original point: trying to connect the love I feel for family to spirituality as you seem to have expressed it elsewhere runs counter to every experience I have.

As for the "strange idea of God torturing us for our own good," I'm not sure where the "strange" comes from. It comes down to us through centuries of religious literature of all stripes and colors, and is only a step removed from Job and Matthew 26:47, whatever your opinion of the latter's translation. In fact, I think you'd be hard pressed to find a Christian who believes that God has an active hand in their lives, but does not believe that he sends them tribulations to test them.


32. On 2006-09-12, Vincent said:

Sydney: Which means my answer boils down to "God created a good universe in which shit happens."

That doesn't solve "the problem of evil" worth a damn, of course, since it just pushes the question back a step, to why God created the universe like that (don't ask me).

No good. You don't get to dodge that.

If God exists, he either tortures us intentionally or is powerless to help us. Which?


33. On 2006-09-12, Clinton R. Nixon said:


Re: "allegiance to an unelected alien power." I've been avoiding this topic because I'll say things that will hurt myself and others, but this is the exact point which I'm avoiding, so I won't any longer.

It's very hard for at least part of my brain not to believe in the Christian God. It did for so long that remembering that he only lives in the minds of people is hard to do.

Basically, Christian theology boils down to "If you believe that God exists and that he sent his son to get nailed on a cross so that you won't eternally suffer, and you ask for forgiveness for the things you've done that God doesn't approve of, you will get to live in eternal bliss." I've tried to phrase that very neutrally, so that I won't sound biased towards either side here. If you don't buy that that's Christian theology in a nutshell, let me know, because that invalidates the rest of this.

Ok. If that's really true, and like I said, sometimes I have a hard time imagining that it's not, well, then, I don't want any part of it. It's a cruel, nasty game to play. It is alien. You're right - God doesn't need to be elected, as he made the universe. My parents didn't have to be elected, as they made me. My parents were great, but my grandfather - also, in that chain of creation - physically abused me as a child. He wasn't elected, and, you know, fuck him for that. I don't have to respect him for it.

Same with God. That sort of moral system is alien to everything I believe in, and I won't be bribed with eternal pain so that I say, "yep, nailing a nice man to a tree was a great idea, and also, people shouldn't be able to have a bit of sex before they decide on a life partner." Seriously, this is insane.


34. On 2006-09-12, Ben Lehman said:

Hey, Vincent—

I'm not Sydney, but consider this.

What "the problem of evil" seems to boil down to is "why didn't God make us incapable of evil?"  The answer there is pretty plain the theology: God did make creatures that were incapable of evil.  They're called angels, and their lives are really, really boring.  They are also not seperate from God, being pure extensions of His Will.

God created us because, well, we're more interesting than Angels.  And we are.  I'd rather be a human than an angel any day, even the most fucked up days.


P.S. We've already talked about this, but for everyone else: I don't believe this as physical cosmological truth, but I do think it makes a hella compelling story about the presence of evil in the world.


35. On 2006-09-12, Vincent said:

I don't care about evil so much. I care about suffering, much of which comes from no evil that I can imagine. Sam's suffering, for instance, which comes from his daughter's premature birth; my dad's cancer, which no one used Free Will to choose.

"God values free will" doesn't address those. If God values the "free will" of cancer cells, whatever on earth THAT means, over my dad's well-being, then His values are screwed up. That God isn't worth my time.


36. On 2006-09-12, NinJ said:

(Holy crap, this is a giant post. But this has been kind of bottled up while I've watched these threads grow.)

(Ben Lehman has pointed out that my relationship to Christianity is largely an emotional and resentful and not the most rational. He's partially right, so I'll keep the lid tied on.)

I don't think He is interested in bargaining with us at all, because there's nothing to bargain with on either side: We don't have anything to offer that He doesn't already have except for our love; He does not offer anything more or less than Himself. And I certainly don't think He puts a cosmic cross-hairs on specific people to prove spiritual points to those around them.

Humans bargain with God throughout Torah, even fighting with God directly. The Covenant itself is a bargain. It's how we can relate to the Universe as an integral part of it.

That doesn't mean that God is a personal phenomenon on the whole. It doesn't mean that because something gnarly happens to someone that it's because God "wanted" hir to be miserable. Misery is a function of the Universe. So is joy, and so is enlightenment.

It also doesn't mean that God does, or doesn't, love us. It's not how you relate to a hurricane, or a flower, or the Horsehead Nebula. Putting a human, emotional face on the Universe is idolatry: to say that God wants something is to make God be a person in your mind, ergo a formed thing, ergo an idol.

(This, by the way, is the source of a great deal of irritation that I have with Christians who use the word "Judaeo-Christian". There are serious differences, morally, philosophically, and theologically between the religions. "Judaeo-Christian" is a word Christians like to use to sound inclusive. Sydney, your assertion that "The Judaic-Christian-Islamic tradition in particular offers the answer, 'Okay, the universe is over, now we can start the really good stuff.'" is twaddle. The "really good stuff" in Judaism is, in no particular order, but all specifically mentioned: eating herring, fucking, dancing, contemplation, writing, planting trees you'll never see bloom, playing tambourines, getting drunk, having children, enjoying the shade, defying the authorities, dying peacefully at the end of a meaningful life. Heaven and the afterlife are great unknowns: Four have entered Pardes and returned. One died, one went mad, one left Judaism, and only Rabbi Akiva came in peace and went in peace. Try reading his work and tell me that you understand what Heaven's like.)


First, an impression: man, you're all religion-whacko, my American friends!

It turns out, this stuff is all there, in you, and it doesn't become obvious until it's thrown into relief by contrast with other, contrary religions. Eero, religion is culture. You're a Christian, but you don't have to think about it because "most Finnish children are" raised that way.

I was one of four Jewish kids in my American public school of 1200. It made me pretty aware of the differences in values between me and my (largely, but not entirely) Catholic schoolmates. They had weird hangups about sex, but thought violence was cool and funny. They got mad that I got Yom Kippur off of school (cuz Yom Kippur rocks!!!), even though I had to take a zero for my quiz that day and they got Christmas off for free. Reading was something you were forced to do. And so on.

I visited Israel when I was 17. It meant a lot to me, standing in places that had only abstract meaning to me before. Standing at the Temple, Massada, the Negev. But ordinary Israelis aren't a religious lot. One of the reasons the Orthodoxy has such sway there is that only they care about religion; for everyone else, "of course we're all Jewish here". (We can talk about the Socialist origins of Israel later; I think the influences are linked).

Eero, you're ignoring stuff you've got that's religious in your culture, at least ethically and probably cosmologically. I'd give you and yours two generations tops before you found God in some way or another after immigrating to the US and rubbing up against the Buddhists, Evangelical Crazies, Jews, Shintoka (is that word right?), Catholic apologists, Unitarian Universalists, Satanists, Neopagans, and religiously ignorant people who make up every day of our existence here. See what the search for religious freedom (as opposed to freedom from religion) has wrought here. It's a powerful thing, it turns out, and it's often very stupid and divisive. But being dismissive of it actually doesn't help you understand the people around you any better.

Like, if you stop to think about it, what does the existence of eternal life, redemption or heaven have to do with right and wrong?

I dunno. Ask a Christian. Jews aren't really concerned with this stuff.

An uppity and shortsighted bastard like me, the threat of punishment does nothing. I need solid ethical reasons, not a father figure taking away my responsibility.

There are 613 commandments in Torah. Of them, the sixth is "No killing" (right after all the stuff about God being the Lord, yeah, OK, granted. But I think you'd agree that worshipping idols is a bad idea, too). It's not there because no one wants to kill people. It's there because even the ethical need a reminder sometimes: when they're angry, when they've been driven to do it by their nation, when it's firmly rationalized. (Note that it takes about 2 pages before they break this one, big time). You don't kill your family because it's contrary to your morals. That wasn't enough to stop the rampant patricide in noble circles throughout history. Now, I'm not saying that if they'd been more religious, they wouldn't have done that, cuz that would be ridiculous. I'm saying that there's clearly more than personal morality needed to keep that kind of thing from happening, and the Torah not only lays out a moral standard, but gives all sorts of examples of failure and the consequences of those failures (and, hey, sometimes there are positive examples too).

The danger, Eero and Sydney, is when someone finds certainty in their religion. The concentration that Christianity has on belief is ??? I can't think of a polite way to say this, so assume that I like you (it's true) and that we just have a really basic disagreement about something tangential to the fact ??? psychologically dangerous, theologically flawed, and politically pragmatic; it requires you to state openly that something is true despite the evidence; why state it if it's obvious? Is the blueness of the sky an article of faith? The existence of my shoes? The fact that my ceiling is low? Certainty is an indication of contempt for the truth. It's a statment that what I want is more important than what is. And what I want is unfettered by the material reality that I can sense or reason.

To me, that's cool if you want your worldview to include things that you know aren't true. Do whatever you want! You don't need my approval. But I don't have to accept it as plausible. I don't even have to accept it as plausible to enjoy your company or other things you say because by its very nature, it's outside of my reality, except insofar as I interact with you about it.

So, you laid yourself on the line here, Sydnes, so I will, too.

My stances of picky-choosiness:

Agnosticism, to me, is a perfectly tenable perspective on the Universe. It uses Ockham's Razor to admirable effect and retains doubt as its blade.

I'm less comfortable about Atheism because it's a statement of faith in no-gods, that the Universe doesn't apply intelligence in ways and scales that we don't see (despite our intuition to the contrary). Still, it's a perspective that assumes moral agency, it assumes that cosmology and an understanding of the Universe is important, and it puts the practitioner in a position of both freedom from external constraints and a position of personal responsibility.

I'm deeply uncomfortable with a religion that requires faith, whether it be in the goodness of God or some other, practical thing, like the afterlife.

Non-cosmologically, the traditions of my branch of Judaism (brought up Reform, now pretty much Reconstructionist) inform my life deeply. Some are obvious: we celebrate Shabat every Friday night and don't do business in any meaningful sense on Saturday, and we find this profoundly helpful to our lives; we celebrate the Holy Days earnestly and with reflection; we tell our stories at festivals. Some are less obvious and exclusive: I made lox last night; I have a college education; I speak with ambivalence about theology among other Jews.

Like a lot of people here, I poked around at various mystical traditions, and they informed my mystical standpoint on Judaism, as they have in the past. I wear a Hermes earring in defiance of the tradition against marking your body and apparent defiance of the laws against idolatry, but: Hermes isn't a god. Hermes is an idea, associations between quickness of mind and the quickest of metals, and hence law, medicine, magic, writing, and trickery; I used to draw lots and lots of magickal diagrams in an attempt to see the universe like Crowley did; I've gotten wrapped up in Taoist alchemy and neopagan Celtoid stone circle stuff; I've declared myself an Atheist and been called a Chaos Magician. These things all inform my cosmology, my morality, and the traditions I will pass on. I've picked and chosen carefully, as every thoughtful Jew has done since the first Exile to Babylon 2400 years ago, from the ambivalent relationship to Greek philosophy to the almost erotic relationship with Sufism to the heavy Lutheran influence on German Jews in the 19th century, which gave birth to the Reform movement to the contemporary fraternity with Budhism.

Picking and choosing is important. It's how we evolve our practice. There are rhetorical practices built into Jewish discussion and debate that are specifically for measuring and taking ownership of new ideas from other cultures.


37. On 2006-09-12, Sydney Freedberg said:

Lots of good, honest, thoughtful, passionate posts here. (I now find myself strangely happy that I have to type "human" every time I enter a post; it seems profoundly fitting). No one should worry about offending me, either, especially given what I've managed to say about paganism, neo-paganism, Mormonism, and more. I'm particularly glad to see someone try to explain things from a Judaic perspective, since it's clear I don't know the knowledge to speak for that tradition: I'm not a Jew, I don't bargain with God, and I often feel we Christians are like the little brother at the dinner table, watching in awe and no small terror as our big brother argues with Dad.

Conversely, though, lots of people keep on characterizing Christian theology based on a fundamental misconception—admittedly, a distortion of which a lot of Christian preachers and writers have been guilty—and I will keep shooting this horse dead until it stays down:

Joshua: The concentration that Christianity has on belief is ... psychologically dangerous, theologically flawed, and politically pragmatic; it requires you to state openly that something is true despite the evidence; why state it if it's obvious?

Clinton: Basically, Christian theology boils down to "If you believe that God exists and that he sent his son to get nailed on a cross so that you won't eternally suffer, and you ask for forgiveness for the things you've done that God doesn't approve of, you will get to live in eternal bliss." I've tried to phrase that very neutrally, so that I won't sound biased towards either side here. If you don't buy that that's Christian theology in a nutshell, let me know, because that invalidates the rest of this.

Clinton, no, I don't buy it; Joshua, no, that's not what we mean by belief. (Well, it's not what most of us mean; there are plenty of fundamentalists who'd disagree with me virulently, but I honestly think that most Christians, in most places, in most of history, didn't think in those terms—heck, in the Dark Ages, bishops were often happy if they could find priests literate enough to walk people through the rituals, let alone make the entire population understand the theology).

To quote what I said already in the companion thread(specifically at
Remember that "believe in" or "have faith in" is not about checking off the right ideological boxes (though, sadly, plenty of Christians throughout history have missed that point). When I say to my wife, "I believe in you," I don't mean that I'm intellectually persuaded that she exists: I mean that I think she is worthy of my trust and faith, and I believe what she says. When I say, "I believe in God," I use the phrase the exact same way.

And I also said (at
I get the impression that a lot of people think that "being a better person" and "being a saint" and "being saved" all have to do with holding specific, slightly weird intellectual positions and performing certain ritualized actions, and have nothing to do with trying to be happy and make the people around you happy. BULLSHIT. Sainthood starts with trying to be decent to the people you see every day.

Please do not think of God poring over some kind of ideological checklist. Please do not think of the things God wants you to do—the things that make you good/virtuous/saintly/whatever—as a list of arbitrary genuflections that have little to do with day to day life. Please do not think of Heaven as a reward, or Hell as a punishment, for things you think or things you do. What you think and what you do changes who you are until you are ready for Heaven or too warped for anything but Hell.

It's perfectly possible to know the theology inside-out, read the Bible and attend services every day, believe fervently that Jesus Christ is your personal savior, and still be an asshole—in which case, guess, what, you're going to Hell. And I'm not talking about inquisitors or witch-burners here, I'm talking about ordinary self-satisfied, self-proclaimed Christians (and their equivalents in other religions) who are so pleased with themselves, and so uninterested in other human beings, that they are rude or spiteful or dismissive of others around them.

Read C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce: One of the characters he condemns to Hell is a Christian theologian, and another is a little old lady who whines constantly about her bunions and her digestion and her ungrateful children. "How can someone go to Hell for grumbling?" asks the protagonist (I'm paraphrasing here; my copy's in a box at home). And his saintly guide replies, basically, "Because she devoted more and more of her time and energy to grumbling, until there was nothing left of her to love the people around her, or take joy in them, or give them joy: She became nothing more than a grumble."

Hell is not a place we get sent because we do things that "God doesn't approve of." Hell is a prison we build around ourselves every day, brick by brick, until the light of God cannot let through and we are left in a darkness of our own making. We build its walls every time we are too lazy or too angry or too self-loving or too self-hating to reach out to someone else and treat them like a human being. We build its walls every time we treat another person as merely a means to our own ends—pleasure, revenge, being right, being the center of attention, even our own need to "do good" for others because it makes us feel good about ourselves. We build it every time we deny our own potential and stop trying to grow because we are too afraid of the risk, or too cautious to spend the energy, or too satisfied with who we already are.

Heaven is not a place where we get sent because we convince ourselves of certain propositions regardless of the facts. It is possible to be a militant atheist or a Satanist, to trample crufixes, burn Bibles, and mock God, and yet to make the effort to understand our fellow human beings (yes, even those self-righteous, closed-minded, witch-burning Christians), to reason with them, to respect them, to treat them with kindness, to be happy for their happiness, and to try to help them when they are in pain or in distress. Guess what: You're going to Heaven.

I think it's a lot easier to be a better person if you stop spitting against the wind that is the Holy Spirit and start using it to fly. I think it's a lot less lonely if you stop railing against the heavens and start to look up to a loving Father. I think it helps to believe Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior because it's true. But those ideas and attitudes are aids to salvation, not salvation itself.

We build our stairway to Heaven, step by step, every time we see someone shaking with fear or grief and take them in our arms, every time we share our food with someone who is hungry, every time we share our words with someone who is lonely. We build a step every time we rejoice in someone else's joy, every time we teach someone to do something they couldn't do before, every time we learn to do something we couldn't do before, every time we share pleasure with another person, every time we deny ourselves pleasure because it would cause another person pain. We build it every time we pick ourselves up and try again, every time we smile at our loved ones, every time we smile at someone we don't know. We build it every time we stare fear in the face—fear of death, fear of pain, fear of being laughed at—and say, "No: I'm trying anyway."

Every hour of every day, we have an opportunity to do a little good or a little evil, to strengthen the best part of ourselves or to let it die by inches, to open our hearts wider to the goodness and God-full-ness of the people around us or to close ourselves into ourselves a little more. Every hour of every day, even if we've wasted every hour that came before, we have another chance at Heaven. Every hour of every day, we can choose to be a channel through which the love of God can flow.

"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. 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, 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.'
"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'"

(Matthew 25:34-40)


38. On 2006-09-12, Vincent said:

Time for you to confront the problem of suffering, Sydney, though. You'll answer for God's generosity, but not His tyranny?


39. On 2006-09-12, Ian Burton-Oakes said:

But those ideas and attitudes are aids to salvation, not salvation itself.

See, but as soon as you say something like this, I have to ask—what gives you the capacity to say to someone else that, for example Mormonism isn't the right path?  You say, well, they are flying against the Holy Spirit.  Well, that seems like a load of hokey—the Holy Spirit flies where you say it does, and only there?  If I go all Meister Eckhart, what is to say that all these anti-Christian responses are not the true expression of the holy spirit—God saving his people from the idolatry of his would be followers?

You want to go back to tradition and appeal to the tried and true, but that is not a spiritual statement, that is an empirical one, and a shoddy one at that (a point Jonathan Walton's description of tradition makes clear).  If it is the 'flight of the holy spirit' and not any particular belief, then you have no place from which to judge—the person you judge may just have caught a different updraft than you.  And this whole discussion here just becomes a game of 'You say tomato, I say tomato, let's call the whole thing off.'

But I don't quite think that is what you want, is it?  If it isn't, then how can you knock people for raising the belief talk?  It's what started this—"I believe monotheism, I believe..."  If it isn't about belief, then there is no reason for you to criticize a girl for worshipping Cthulu.


40. On 2006-09-12, Sydney Freedberg said:

Ian, I may be going round in circles here, but let me try rephrasing this idea again:

All beliefs contain some truth; but not all beliefs contain equal truth.
What you believe is not the only thing that matters; it is not even the most important thing; but believing true things is more useful than believing false things.
I do not know everything about where and how God is to be found; compared to the unfathomable greatness of God, I in fact know terribly little; but I still know enough to make value judgments about ways that I think are clearly better and ways that I think are clearly worse.
I may be wrong about everything; I am certainly wrong about something; but I owe it to you to say what I think is right.

There is a frustrating tendency in this otherwise astounding discussion for people to bounce back and forth between "oh, so all beliefs are equally true and all religions are equally good?" and "oh, so everyone who doesn't agree with you is going to Hell?" It is actually possible to hold a position in the middle. Please stop trying to force me to one extreme or the other when I think both extremes are nonsense. If the truth about light is that it sometimes acts like a particle and sometimes acts like a wave, why do people think that the truth about the Lord of Light is going to be simple and straightforward?


I understand God's generosity to us. I don't understand God's letting us suffer. "Free will," yes, but why is free will so important, and what does it require so much suffering?

I'm not trying to dodge this one, I'm taking it on the chin because I don't know how to throw it back into your court.

For whatever reason, God created a universe in which your father died of cancer, my father died of terminal kidney failure, my grandfather and his sister suffered senile dementia so severe that their personalities disintegrated and we were left with twitching bodies that didn't know when to die, and then there's Darfur, and Iraq, and Afghanistan, and downtown Washington, DC. And it's not like God didn't know this was going to happen.

So yes, God has a lot to answer for.

On the Last Day—if I don't just wink out of existence or burn in a Hell I spent my life assembling—I mean to ask Him to explain Himself. That's not a joke, Vincent: It's honestly the first question I'd have, if I have the opportunity. Until that conversation, though, I don't think you'll find any Christian who can give you a satisfactory answer.

Maybe, until then, part of having faith in God is trusting Him enough to forgive Him. Maybe "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who tresspass against us" is about us and God. I don't know.

What I do know about forgiveness is that I don't really forgive people who've hurt me for their sake. I forgive them for my sake, so I stop holding onto being hurt by the evil they have done and start on taking advantage of the good they can do.


41. On 2006-09-12, Meguey said:

Sydney, I think the trouble lies in the incongruity between your explanation of Heaven and Hell (which is very mild and friendly and clear and "the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand"-y) and the one espoused by my Baptist preacher grandfather and a million others like him who understand Hell to be a very real place with a very real lake of fire that they really do think is the destination of the damned. I know people from all walks and faiths who would agree with you that we make our own reality.


42. On 2006-09-12, Meguey said:

"Maybe "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who tresspass against us" is about us and God."

I dig that. I don't neccessarily believe it, but I dig it.


43. On 2006-09-12, Vincent said:

Sydney: fair enough.

You'll understand, though, that even if your God's real, I don't want any part of Him.


44. On 2006-09-12, Valamir said:

For modern discussions of Christianity to make any sense at all you have to dip a bit into history.  So I'll throw a few abbreviated tidbits out.  Most of this comes from sources in my own library, so while I could provide a fairly extensive bibliography, I'm not equipped to actually give specific cites...cuz...well that would be too much work.

First:  Jesus did not found a church or a religion.  He was a Jew who taught us about how God his father wanted us to live.

Second:  The "Christian Church" was founded by men, principally on the model provided by Paul.

(a personal aside...if you ask me, the greatest victory Satan ever achieved was convincing early Christians that Paul was an apostle...pretty much every bigoted, fire and brimstone, get-your-hate on sermon ever delivered draws heavily on Paul.  Christianity sans Paul can stand next to any "kinder gentler" religion without shame.)

Third:  Since Christ didn't found the Church, he provided no guidance for its creation.  Early church leaders had to invent their own.  Doctrine is man's attempt to establish rules for how to run an organization in the name of God given that God didn't provide an instruction manual for it (cuz he didn't want it in the first place).

Fourth:  Power corrupts.  As the church as an organization gained power it gained in corruption as well.  Not surprising since from the beginning it was an organization created BY men FOR men with little to no divine input required.

Fifth:  By the time of the reformation, the Catholic church's corruption had become so undeniable that its own priests could no longer swallow it, and the reformation movement was born.

Sixth:  Problem - Logical arguement of the day relied heavily on citing authority.  How do you hold a debate with a Catholic theologian who has 1000 odd years of well established authorities to call upon.  Solution - cite a higher authority...God himself.  How can you cite God?  Through scripture.

Seventh: But wait...the bible is just a collection of oral traditions translated through 3 different languages that no one actually speaks in their daily lives.  Translated by hand by monks who were (get this, its pretty good) often unable to read at all themselves and were just copying symbols visually (yeah...errors galore).  This is something the Catholics knew and still know. order to claim the bible as a higher authority it had to be...wait for it...the unerring word of God.

That's where the whole business of scripture as literal truth of God's Will comes from.  It was not part of the Christian tradition AT ALL but it was a necessary invention of the protestant reformation.  If they were going to throw off the yoke of the Catholic Church they needed something to replace it with...and that something was the bible.  For that to work...the bible had to be the literal unerring word of God.  You didn't need a Priest and a Pope to tell you how to get to just needed a bible.  This was the driving force behind translating the bible into the vernacular to begin with.

(correct me if I'm wrong here Sydney, but my understanding is that the Epicopalians...being essentially Anglicans...who were more or less Catholic with the Pope filed off...never suffered from this particular brand of nonsense).

Eighth:  America was populated not just by Protestants...but by particularly fundamentalist extremist Protestants whose beliefs were so screwy they were persecuted in their home country for them.  However cute it is to watch elementary school kids dress up like Pilgrims and act out the first Thanksgiving...the Pilgrims were asshats.  Australia got the criminals...America got the religious nut jobs.  Those Puritanical origins have stayed with us for hundreds of years.

Our ridiculous notions of sex, which rightly seem bizarre to Europeans, are a direct manifestation of those Puritanical origins.  The whole fundamentalist Protestant mindset of "us" vs. "not like us" can be held directly responsible for generations of ethnic and religious bigotry in this country.  Most modern evangelical protestant denomenations still carry threads of those puritanical origins.  400 years later and the damned Puritans are still telling us how to live our lives (the other, more dangerous, side to the "traditions" coin).

So why is this at all important?

Because most of what mainstream American culture considers to be symptomatic of "Christianity" (and what our overseas friends see of us) is actually NOT symptomatic of Christianity at all.  But rather is symptomatic of that particular brand of Protestant extremism (which should not be taken to mean ALL protestants) that started with the heartfelt necessity of claiming the bible as the highest authority during the reformation and continued with ever increasingly bizarre variations down through the years.

This is essentially where "picky choosy" religion comes from.  Remember #3 doctrine does not come from comes from man's attempt to turn God into a Church...something Christ never intended.  Of course its "picky choosy"...just like picking and choosing secret handshakes and membership requirements for the Elks doctrine (which here I distinguish completely from creed) is entirely a fabrication of men attempting to define how they are going to acquire and keep influence over other men.  That's why the early churches invented doctrine in the first place.  That's how women (who were originally VERY much in the forefront of the early Christian Church...there were several wealthy women in the bible who were patrons of Jesus) were pushed out—by doctrine...not by doctrine.

That's why the modern churches have doctrinal disputes.  There are TONS of little protestant denomenations that routinely split off into new church's over matters of church politics.  Because different MEN want to influence other men differently.  Its all about control and power and who gets to say how others should live.

Thing is that NOW there's an added layer to it.  Since scripture is held by those folks to be the unerring word of God, any doctrine that can claim a scriptural basis thus trumps any doctrine that can' in the never ending battle of man-looking-to-control-other-men, finding obscure scriptural references to twist around to support your doctrine is the way the whole control game is played.

But here's the kicker...none of that bullshit has anything at all to do with God, with Christianity, or with faith.  What frustrates me in following these threads is this whole throwing out the baby with the bathwater vibe.  Yes those people SUCK.  For the most part organized religion in any fashion sucks (and isn't what God intended) but those versions of it SUCK hard.  So yes, indict them.  condemn them.  Call bullshit on them.  Just don't mistake their nonsense for what it means to be Christian and don't mistake their twisted small doctines for God's will.

That I think is the root reason all of these threads are going around and around.  Because people keep associating that crap with being Christian, and its not at all what Sydney's talking about.


45. On 2006-09-12, Meguey said:

Plus, why do they call it the King James Bible? Because King James commissioned an edition which pushed his political agenda.  When my mom was in seminary, we had a great conversation about how there was years-long intense discussion as to which parts of the Bible the religious nut-jobs Ralph mentions were going to bring to the new world and which they wanted to cut out. Living document? You bet your sweet PR.

Ralph, you rock. Thanks for putting it in historical perspective.


46. On 2006-09-12, Jye Nicolson said:

Hi Sydney,

"But "allegiance to an unelected alien power"—huh? Are you suggesting that no religion is legitimate unless its adherents get to vote on their god?"

Absolutely not.  I'd never suggest that any religion is legitimate.

If beings like those described by religion were demonstrated to exist, I would suggest diplomacy and not worship would be the appropriate way of dealing with them.  Whether these non-human intelligences arrive in flying saucers or on wings of fire would not seem to be particularly material to that point.

The role that these beings played in the history of the universe would be extremely interesting, but I cannot think of any acts in that history, up to and including its creation, that would automatically grant them sovereignty over the human race or any of its members.  Which is assuming, of course, that we accept the assertions of those beings - something that I hope we would not do without compelling evidence.

If Gabriel has time to explain to the Prophet that he is entitled to extra wives, then I think it's reasonable to expect him to show up at the UN building and conduct talks.

Now!  Let's assume that, right now, your God exists.  I don't know anything about this entity other than the assertions of his self-proclaimed representatives, who clearly benefit from inducing people to believe those assertions.  The only ability I can independently credit this being with is the remarkable property of avoiding proving his existence, like some sort of cosmic master criminal.

My reasons to obey, worship or trust this creature - or those who give him their allegiance - are exceptionally slim.  At this point, I wouldn't buy a used car from him.  I do not know or trust his agenda, and I have no reason to accept that the agenda professed by his representatives is his true one (experience would lead me to believe it probably isn't).  I would be extremely unhappy if those making decisions affecting me were loyal to his agenda.

That's with the hypothetical that I accept this being even exists.  In the real world, were I have a very high certainty that this being (or Matreiya or Vishnu or whoever) doesn't exist and never did, I'm hearing you assert the sovereignty of an imaginary being.  It doesn't even exist to guide the agenda its "representatives" claim to be acting by!  I have a rough time trusting the judgement of those involved.

"It's not as if God is some kind of Third World despot who seized power over the universe and set aside proper electoral democracy. He made the universe. He encompasses the universe: Everything good in it is simply a sub-set of His goodness. If we held an election for Supreme Being, there'd be only one qualified candidate."

You must understand that supporters of political candidates routinely make similar assertions.  It would appear to me that you are in the position of making them with a paucity of evidence that even Mr Rove would be reluctant to act on :)


47. On 2006-09-13, NinJ said:

Jye said,

If beings like those described by religion were demonstrated to exist, I would suggest diplomacy and not worship would be the appropriate way of dealing with them.

Welcome to the world of Magick (and in particular, Jewish thaumaturgy).


48. On 2006-09-13, Jye Nicolson said:

"Welcome to the world of Magick (and in particular, Jewish thaumaturgy)."

Well, yay the magicians, then!

In that sort of case, I'm in the bemusing position of approving of the magicians' approach to interaction with imaginary beings more the priests'.  On the off chance the beings in question actually exist, however, I hope the magicians take them for everything they can get.


49. On 2006-09-13, joshua m. neff said:

Ralph, that was one hell of a great post.


50. On 2006-09-13, Sydney Freedberg said:

1. Jye:

I don't get the impression that you're engaging seriously with what I'm trying to say, which makes you unique in this conversation to date. "Cosmic master criminal"? The UN Building? Karl Rove? What the hell?

I'm not talking about "alien intelligences": I'm talking about something of which the entire universe is a lesser included subset, in the same way your large intestine is a lesser included subset of you. And I'm not talking about "sovereignty over the human race or any of its members": God hasn't given either you or me any instructions about how to vote or pay our taxes, as far as I know. The issue isn't sovereignty, but salvation; not obedience, but salvation.

Please go back and read my previous posts (again, if you've already read them) in this thread, the salvation thread (, and the original "screwed expectations" thread ( At this point I don't think we're having the same conversation.

2. Poor Saint Paul

Ralph, I agree with a lot of your post, but I find myself having to defend Saint Paul, the Puritans, and the institutional Church in the Roman, Medieval, and Reformation eras—patriarchal, bigoted, and generally screwed up as they all admittedly were. I don't think we can afford to go into the history here, and I'm not sure I know it well enough, but there is tremendous good alongside the evil—as there is in most of us.

If you read Saint Paul's letters, you can find joy and openess and compassion in them alongside the contorted Platonic-meets-Talmudic logic and the injunctions to slaves to obey their masters. I'm particularly fond of Paul because I read a passage of his at the funerals of both of my grandparents:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble, or hardship, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or the sword?... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalites, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God.
(Romans 8:35-39)


51. On 2006-09-13, Jye Nicolson said:

Hi Sydney,

I'm absolutely not engaging seriously with what you've said so far (though I've read it) - I was specifically posting with regards to mashup/Cthulu religion, and then your reply to my post.  I'm not really engaging in the great body of debate you're currently in, because it's a little silly for me to be debating points deep into theology when I question its very first assumptions!

That being said, I probably did use the word "you" a couple of times when I meant "People of the Book" or "You religious folks".

I do hope you can see my point that there's an extremely long chain of events that need to occur between identifying the existence of a given being and reasonably worshiping it as a deity (regardless of whether that being spans all things or is part of a crew on Mt Olympus).  But that's absolutely off to the side of your main body of discussion.

That's why I'm saying things like "I don't even know who these things are, and I have no reason to trust those who claim to represent them." and not "doesn't it worry you to be amongst those who add companions to God?" ^_^


52. On 2006-09-13, Joel P. Shempert said:

I don't think we can afford to go into the history here, and I'm not sure I know it well enough

Actually, I'm personally interested in getting intlo the history; I'd like to see what your counter at least in brief, to Ralph's other assertions is (you already gave a handy answer on Paul.). By the same token, I'd like to hear more from Ralph. Specifically, Ralph, while I can dig most of what you say, I'm skeptical about the idea of there being no precedent for "Scripture as unerrant truth" prior to the Protestant Reformation. Maybe it's just because, growing up Protestant, I was given a different spin on it, but it doesn't seem likely for the church to get to the point of dogmatism that it did in the pre-Reformation days without a strong belief in the unerring truth of Scripture. Hmm, it occurs to me that the Torah and its adherent's views on its authority also bears examining here—perhaps NinJ can enlighten us.

Incidentally, any sources for further reading that Ralph, Syndey, or anybody, really, can provide would be great, specifically on topics like "Psst—they didn't even BELIEVE in inerrancy 'til Luther!" and "Hey, people actually debated on what parts of the Bible to include in the Puritan days—pass it on!" This is especially if people don't want to expound further here.


53. On 2006-09-13, Tris said:

Re : Forgive us our trespasses relating to our relationship with god.


No no no.

I've never met Vincent, but from what I can tell, is a really nice guy.  I don't believe he would every inflict grand suffering on me or mine, and I do believe that if he could prevent their suffering, he'd do his best.

I don't worship him.

What would it say about me if I were willing to worship a being who cared less, just because it had more power?

God can not need forgiveness if he is to be at all worthy of our praise.  He's supposed to be all knowing, all powerful.  He can't make mistakes, and he knows the consequences of all of his action.

Either he can explain everything he has done, and how it was the absolute best course; or he is deliberately causing suffering for no good reason, and immediately throws away any chance of me worshipping him by choice.


54. On 2006-09-13, Sydney Freedberg said:

Tris: [Why] worship a being who cared less, just because it had more power?

Because it can also offer you more goodness than any individual human being.

That's just the short answer, of course. The slightly more complete answer follows.


I'm not particularly interested in "worship"—that word has far too many ambiguous meanings in our language, and you'll notice I haven't used it so far (I think so, at least: Please point me to any instance where I have). I don't think God particularly craves being "worshipped"; I do think He wants to be loved, and He wants us to be happy, because He loves us.

What I am interested in is being open to the goodness of God. The rituals of communal worship help me and many other people in that; prayer helps; study of scripture helps; music helps—for me, music helps a lot. But all those are aids to salvation, not salvation itself.


God "cares less"? Even if you assume that He has indeed decided to inflict suffering on us for reasons we don't understand (and remember that I am not confident of any answer to the "problem of evil"), that does not mean He "cares less." He cared enough to be born, live, die, and crawl back from death, after all. It is possible to hurt someone you love and still care tremendously about them—look at almost any family.


We don't know why there is evil in a universe created by a loving God. We just don't. I've never seen a satisfactory answer. But until we get a satisfactory answer, there are three courses of action:

1. "The existence of evil proves that God doesn't exist. I won't seek Him out."
2. "The existence of evil troubles me. Nevertheless I will open myself to the love of God."
3. "The existence of evil proves that God is unworthy of my love; therefore I will not open myself to His love."

(1) has the advantage of logical completeness; it's also a little bleak for me, in that it shuts the door on God for good and never wants to look through it again.
(2) admits a huge gaping hole in its understanding; it's also the only approach that is willing to move forward past the pain and try to benefit from God.
(3) strikes me as radically self-defeating. "Because I am wounded, I refuse to accept healing"—this is not a plan. If you suspect God exists, you should try accepting that you don't know why He does everything He does and be willing to accept the good you know He does do.


55. On 2006-09-16, Valamir said:

Actually, I'm personally interested in getting intlo the history;

By the same token, I'd like to hear more from Ralph. Specifically, Ralph, while I can dig most of what you say, I'm skeptical about the idea of there being no precedent for "Scripture as unerrant truth" prior to the Protestant Reformation."

Incidentally, any sources for further reading that Ralph, Syndey, or anybody, really, can provide would be great, specifically on topics like "Psst—they didn't even BELIEVE in inerrancy 'til Luther!"

Well, I'll see what I can do.

On the subject of the bible as the unerring word of God we need to hit up a little more history.  The earliest use of written anything in the early church began around 50AD with the epistles (letters) of church founders to their scattered congregations...Paul's letters being the best known.  Those letters referred to Scripture and following scripture but what they were referring to was actually the Hebrew bible (i.e. what would become known as the "old testament") in an effort to demonstrate how their teachings were in line with the old prophecies.

The Gospels didn't gain status as something even worthy of being quoted or held up as evidence until well into the second century.  Remember, the Hellenistic world based its arguements heavily on citing authority and it was a good century plus after Christ that the writings of the apostles were considered authoritative enough to base an arguement on.  Clearly then if there was doubt as to whether the books could be called on as an authority in a logical arguement there was no thought at the time of them being the unerring word of God.

The "new testament" didn't even begin to be assembled as a collection of authoritative works until the third century and it took another hundred years before the shape of what we typically think of as the books of the New Testament were accepted as canon.  Erasmus did the heavy lifting of assembling the "canonical" works in the early 300s with the blessing and approval of Emperor Constantine, but the church in Rome didn't accept the list until 405.  So basically for the first 400 years the church couldn't even agree on what writings were and weren't worthy of being canon...let alone that any could be the unerring word of God.

A good general history of the bible from the old testament scriptures through the writings of Paul, the assembling of the canon, the manuscripts of the middle ages, the rise of the humanists in the renaissance, the reformation, and on through modern biblical science is

The Bible Through the Ages

1996 ed. Huber.  Its a 30,000 basic survey, but its a good start and has a decent bibliography.

If you want to dig deeper into the history and politics of what became canon and what became heresy

Lost Christianities


Lost Scriptures

both by Ehrman are great sources.  There's alot of fun stuff in there like how certain scriptures were rejected because of the feature role they gave women and other goodies.

The bible went from the Hebrew, through the Greek and into the Latin, but as anyone who's used Babelfish or Google Translator knows you can't simply map words over 1 for 1 and have them make sense.  A translation meant figuring out what the actual meaning of the original text was and then determining how to phrase that in the new language so that it kept the same meaning even if it didn't use exactly the same words.  Of course the success of that depended alot on the abilities of the translator, the quality of the source material, and was of course colored by the politics and theological debates of the day.

Misquoting Jesus

another Ehrman book (basically all three represent one large study broken up into three volumes) goes into a lot of specifics on the type of errors that cropped in through the translation and copying process including examples of several verses that were changed to adhere more closely to the doctrine of the day or to bring the different versions of the same stories found in the gospels closer together.  There are even surviving manuscripts where the copiest wrote curses in the margin against any future copiest who would dare alter the text...a testament to how common such alterations were...and ultimately about as effective as the curses on Egyptian tombs against looters.

The Catholic Church was well aware of these problems and issues with the text and knew full well that lay readers, unfamiliar with the history of the translations and the tremendous volumes of theological debate that underlay church doctrine could well be led astray by reading any single version and thinking it was THE version.  A knowledgeable theologian had access to several versions and dozens of scrolls of commentary written by other scholars commenting on the disagreeing texts.  But someone with access to only 1 version who didn't have the advantage of a life time of theological study could well come to the wrong conclusions.

This wasn't as much of a problem when the bible was available only in Latin.  The church would from time to time have to deal with an individual priest whose preaching was deemed heretical, but it was relatively easy to control.

The problem got enormously more complicated at the end of the 12th century when vernacular translations became common.  Most monks (who despite the above discussion were the most qualified to handle copying of manuscripts and the most capable of dealing with conflicting texts) refused to translate into the vernacular (any one who's read Umberto Eco's novel Name of the Rose will recognize some of the debates on this topic).  This meant that many of the vernacular texts were translated by lay people, whose scholarship was even more questionable.  Combine this with the penitent movement and the poverty movement which attracted some pretty extreme folks (like the flagellants) and soon every wacko who could get his hands on a bible was preaching the word in a variety of really strange flavors, and gathering followers.

It got so bad at one point that the church actually outlawed lay ownership of bibles in any translation in an effort to keep flawed texts out of the hands of people who lacked the background to understand what they were reading.

That was the level of authority the Catholic Church gave the scripture.  Yes it was holy, yes it was the word of God, but it was the word of God as written by the hands of men.  Men who were flawed, and so the words they wrote were flawed.  Scripture was the holy word of God...but it had to be interpretted and studied and conveyed by those with the background to understand it.

In a way its sort of like like listening to a Creationist talk about Evolution.  They understand so little about what evolution says, that any knowledgable biologist cringes at the ridiculousness of their claims.  Thats kind of how the Catholic church thought of these vernacular bibles.  These preachers understand so little about the bible and its history that they cringed at the ridiculousness of their claims.

It was into that environment that Luther in 1500-something did his whole "we don't need priests we have the direct word of God right here in the bible" thing...making his own translation of the bible featuring what he thought the important emphasis should be.

Given the long history of dealing with wackos with a bible its hardly surprising that the Catholic Church condemned him as a heretic and sent Germany into a never ending series of religious wars lasting for centuries.  It is a testament to the Catholic church of the day that the reformation spawned a counter reformation; where the Church realized that it was its own corruption that gave these heresies justification and set about trying to put its own house in order in response to many of its opponent's legitimate accusations.

Enter the modern evangelical protestant with their claims of the bible as the true and unerring word of God...despite the "flavor of the month" translations appearing on book store shelves (some of which make the old "Good News" version look down right traditional) and those of us who understand the need for reason combined with faith and have a grasp of church history are left scratching our heads wondering WTF are these yahoos thinking...?


56. On 2006-09-16, Valamir said:


Whose Bible is It?

by Pelikan is another good source for the history of the scripture

On the topic of Paul...

First, Paul never knew Jesus.  He converted after Jesus was already dead.  Everything he knew about Christ he picked up second hand...filtered through his own personal history and background.

Second, Paul was a Hellenized Jew from Greek Anatolia (Turkey).  He was a Roman Citizen.  That meant that while he and his family were devout Jews, he was culturally Romanized.  Roman culture at the time was HIGHLY patriarchal and authoritarian.  A Roman father had the legal right to kill his wife and children...he was, after all, the master of the household.  This was the sort of culture that Paul was familiar with and it colored his perception of "God the Father" right from the outset.

Third, Paul's early career was as a hitman for the Jewish hierarchy and Roman authorities in persecuting this new cult of Jesus' followers...  He's known to have participated in at least one stoning of an early evangelical in Jerusalem.  That's the kind of person Paul was.  "Disagree with me and I'll kill you".  That was Paul.  He may have converted and honestly embraced the teachings of Christ but he carried much of that sentiment with him.  His anger and hostility towards people who wouldn't do things his way is threaded throughout all of his letters.

Fourth:  Paul pretty much invented Christianity as a church.  It would not be much of a stretch to say that without Paul there would be no Christian church at all.  Jesus was Jewish reformer.  He didn't set out to found a new religion.  He set out to topple the corruption at the top of the Jewish hierarchy and return to a simpler, purer JEWISH relationship with God.  His early followers were Jews, they thought of themselves as Jews, they preached to Jews, sought to reform Judaism, and lived and died as Jews.  It was Paul who invented Christianity as its own religion seperate and apart from Judaism.  It was Paul who took this new religion to the "gentiles" throughout the Hellenistic world of the Eastern Mediterranean.  It was Paul who laid the foundation and formed the model for all the flavors of Christianity to come.

It was Paul who Romanized Jesus.

Now I love the Romans.  They were impressive, culturally sophisticated, bad asses.  Romans rocked.  Reading the history of Julius Caeser conquering Gaul is some cool shit.

But they were assholes.

They were not a people of peace, love, tolerance, and respect for your fellow man.  They were a people of slaves, brutality, and warmongering who thought nothing of feeding people to lions for amusement.  Their entire society was based on oppressing others and keeping the people pacified with bread and circuses.  Now don't me wrong...I'm all for a good gladitorial game and sending some legions out to crack some heads...but that doesn't make them a good model to base a religion around.

Paul was a Roman, and he brought Roman sensibilities to the church he founded, and in so doing did irreperable harm to the message of Christ.

I can only imagine what a Christian church founded by James and Peter without Paul would look like today.  Who knows...maybe without Paul's dedication and ambition the whole thing would have fizzled out in a couple of generations and Jesus would be long forgotten.  But in any case, it certainly would have been a very different looking church.

For a pretty even handed treatment of Paul (i.e. who Paul was without my anti-Paul editorializing) see the aptly named


by Wilson


57. On 2006-09-18, Sydney Freedberg said:

Ralph, you've obviously read a lot more about the life of Saint Paul than I have; I'm impressed and need to check out some of those books sometime.

On the "in defense of Saint Paul" note, though, let me emphasize the basic fact that, until Emperor Constantine (300 something AD) Christians not only lacked the power to persecute others, but were in fact frequently persecuted and driven underground themselves. Certainly Saul of Tarsus (Paul's name before conversion) was a kind of religious policeman for the corrupt Temple hierarchy, very much on the line of "disagree with me and I'll kill you"; equally certainly, he gave up that power when he converted, and went from being secret policeman to dissident.

I honestly can't think of any passage in the letters of Paul that advises persecution of non-Christians, which doesn't necessarily mean he was particularly tolerant, but which does make perfect sense given that he was writing practical advice to congregations around the Roman world (many of which he'd founded) at a time when none of those congregations had the power to persecute, and all of them risked persecution.

Now, of course, I may be forgetting a passage—references welcome! But I'd advise people, myself include to read (re-read) Paul: If you bear with the sometimes gleefully convoluted phrasing (Torah scholar + Hellenistic philosophy = brain hurty), there's a great deal of love and compassion there.


58. On 2006-09-19, Valamir said:

Hey Sydney.  Not talking about persecuting "non Christian's" at all.  In fact, even talking about Christians and non Christians at this point in the history of the church is a total anachronism.  I'm talking about Paul's instructions to his own church and his chastisement of his own followers when they stray...and also his own break from his own colleagues.

Hmmm...perhaps a bit more history would be valuable.  Vincent if this is totally of no interest let me know...or feel free to give it its own thread or whatever.

Its important to realize that, while today Judaism seems rather monolithic, with the only difference being how closely one follows the laws, in Jesus's time there were dozens and dozens of Jewish sects.  Some of the more famous to Christians are the Essenes and Maccabees.  But there were tons.  MANY of them actually incorporated Jesus's teachings during and after his life.  The most famous of these would be the Ebionites (sp?) which centered around Jesus's brother James and his family after Jesus's death.

Of all of the various flavors of Judaism of the time, the largest and most influencial were the Pharisees and Sadducees.  In fact, if you're a Christian you probably know those two as the persecutors of Jesus and almost always hear the two linked together.  That's not really true and is another gift to us from Paul.

The Sadducees were the main power of the Temple in Jerusalem.  They represented the established "main stream" Jewish power base and collaborated with the Romans in order to maintain and preserve their cultural identity.  In exchange they were expected to keep the rabble rousers in line and out of the Roman's hair.  During this time there were LOTS of rabble rousers (of which from their perspective, Jesus was just another wild eyed prophet from the wilderness).

The Pharisees were a sect of scholars who believe that God's law went well beyond just what was written and began a tradition of interpreting what was written in order to apply it to daily life.  The Pharisees operated a number of schools in and around Jerusalem where they taught "wisdom, writing, and debating".

Paul was a Pharisee.  Whether he was a full on Pharisee or just a guy who attended one of the schools for awhile depends on which version of his biography you like best.  Paul ultimately went to work for the high priest of the temple (a Sadducee) as a servant / member of the Temple Guard (the guard being the group charged with suppressing the rabble rousers).

Chronologically, its highly likely that Paul would have been a temple guard at the time of Jesus's arrest.  Its possible that their paths may have crossed.  Such an occurance may help explain why Paul's version of Christianity focused so heavily on Jesus's death while the teachings of James and Peter and the Ebionites focused so highly on his life.

At any rate Paul eventually had a falling out with the Pharisees over matters of doctrine.  The Pharisees were highly anti-gentile and very dedicated to enforcing Jewish Law...including circumcision...a big one.  Paul, on the other hand, was all about converting the gentiles (to JUDAISM...not "Christianity" which didn't exist at the time), and recognized quite practically that the gentiles would be far easier to convert if you weren't attacking their penii with a sharp knife.  They went their seperate ways and Paul, in typical Paul fashion, bore a grudge.  He demonized the Pharisees in his letters and this is largely why today we tend to lump the Pharisees in with the Sadducees as enemies of Jesus.

In reality, there's a very good possibility that Jesus himself was a Pharisee, or at least studied in their schools.  Jesus was also known to refer to Gentiles as "dogs" a common Pharisee designation.  If he wasn't himself, its almost certain that many of those who flocked to hear him teach were.  The actual teachings of Jesus were very compatible with the teachings of the Pharisees.  Even Luke, in the Book of Acts is forced to admitt that it was a Pharisee who was among the strongest defenders of the "Way", as it was known at the time.

But its key here to remember what order the New Testament was actually written in.  Chronologically the Gospels tell about the life of Jesus BEFORE Paul's missionary work.  But in reality they were written long AFTER Paul's letters and long after Paul had put his stamp on things.  Luke himself was a student of and big promotor of Paul.  So alot of the stuff that made its way into the Gospels (such as Jesus's rivalry with the Pharisees and his own family) was inserted there by folks indoctinated by Paul who had had a falling out with both the Pharisees and the Ebionites.  Similarly the passages that have been interpreted as Jesus bringing God to all people, not just the Jews, was likely also inserted in a similar manner in support of Paul's own mission work.

Ok, so if Paul and his followers were essentially just another flavor of Judaism in a SEA of flavors of Judaism.  And if Paul's flavor wasn't even unique in featuring the message of Jesus as part of it...How come Paul's flavor gave birth to one of the world's great religions and most folks have never even heard of the Ebionites.

3 reasons:

First: Paul was widely traveled and well education.  His letters can be held up as masterpieces of classical literature and arguement.  In a day before the Age of Enlightenment where people were far more influenced by myth building than reason, Paul created a compelling mythology that appealed to the masses in a way that the Ebionites who portrayed Jesus as a man they all knew personally just couldn't compete with.

Second:  one of the most important events in ancient history occured in 64AD (after Paul had died) the burning of Rome.  Yes, this is the event of "Nero fiddles while Rome burns" fame.  In reality Nero worked very hard against the fire, even joining the fire brigades himself. Before he went mad he was quite a good leader...but that's a digression.

To understand the importance of this event to Christianity you have to understand its importance as a world event.  Rome was a city of 2 million people, half of them slaves (yes, this was the era of bread and circuses to keep the masses happy).  2 million people at that time in history was far far larger a city (relatively) in both size and importance than New York City is today.  That's 2 million people in a time with no skyscrapers, no airconditioning, no refrigeration, and no modern conveniences of any kind...its a big honking deal.

3/4s of the city burned to the ground.  75% of the single most important city in the western world destroyed.  Look at how our nation was galvinized by 9/11 and the toppling of a couple of buildings.  How much more devastating is losing not just 2 buildings but three forths of the entire city.  That's a BIG BIG deal.  We're talking first century Front Page News here.

So where do the "Christians" come in.  Well someone had to be blamed.  And this obscure Jewish sect made for a perfect scape goat.

We should note that in the first century, Jews were actually a fairly significant people in the Roman Empire.  As many as 1/10 of the total population of the Empire was Jewish and many more were fascinated by and dabbled in the monotheistic teachings of the Jews.  Apparently the Jews were enjoying something of "Fad" status at the time.  Even Nero's wife was into it along with many prominent Romans.

So clearly Nero couldn't just blame the Jews...the Jews had powerful friends.  But this obscure sect of Jews...that even the mainstream Jews hated (thanks to Paul)...they had no patrons of consequence at all.  No one would care, no enemies would be created by prosecuting them.  They were about as nobody as nobody could be.

Interestingly...they very well may have actually BEEN responsible for the fire.  See the fire started in the ramshackle wooden shops and stalls in the Forum...just the kind of place where the early Christians would have been doing business The early followers of Paul were largely drawn from the merchant class, Paul's churches being founded in all of the leading commercial centers in the Eastern Mediterranean.  So its quite possible that in a "cow kicking over the lantern" kind of event it really was a Christian who burned down Rome.

Thing is, Roman law didn't distinguish between accidental fire and intentional fire (both were arson, punishable by death)...for good reason given how dangerous fire was.

Now throughout human history, executions for crime have been done publically to serve as an example.  Whether its the gallows of the old west, the guillotine in revolutionary Paris, or the iron cages full of convicted pirates; public spectacle surrounding executions was an important legal lesson to the people.

But this is Rome.  A Rome that through the games had been so desensitized to violence that no mere public execution would do.  Plus this was the greatest catastrophe in the history of the Empire...vengeance needed to be much bigger.  Christians were stuffed inside of animal carcasses and fed to the Lions in the Circus.  Even more infamously, they were put inside of leather body suits, coated with pitch and used as human torches to illuminate dinner parties in Nero's private gardens.  Yes...giant flaming human tiki torches...kind of puts our treatment of Iraqi prisoners in a bit of perspective, don't it.

Here's another little interesting tidbit...the gardens where all those Christian's were burned up...the Vatican...yup.  There's a reason why the Church once it came to power centuries later set up shop in the Vatican...THAT'S how long the memory of this event lasted.

Now here's where it gets really GOOD.  It was this event that popularized the term "Christian".  Before this there was no such thing as a "Christian".  The word may have been used (although there are some who say it was coined by Nero) but it had never been universally applied to a group of people identified by a common religion.  Nope...there were no "Christians" until 64AD.  After 64 AD the entire world knew them as the guys who got turned into human torches for torching Rome.

So...reason number two why Paul's little splinter sect of Jews lasted while the rest faded away...Nero made them famous...and gave them a world spanning identity.  No longer was there a little group in Ephesus called the Ephesians and a little group in Galatia called the they were all Christians.

Tragedy creates community...and this single event more than any other turned the wide flung churches Paul had founded into a community that thought of themselves as a body.  But it was still a JEWISH body.  Paul, afterall, died a Jew just as Jesus had.

Third:  a few years later the Romans raze Jerusalem to the ground.  70AD...not a stone was left standing on another stone...with a couple of exceptions like the now legendary wall of the temple.  Finally Rome had had enough.  The Sadducees had failed, time to do things the Roman way.

Most people don't realize that the Romans built a brand new city on top of the ruins and gave it a snazzy Roman name.  Jerusalem as a center of the Jewish faith...gone...obliterated.  And along with them most all of the Jewish sects.

Sadducees...totally gone.
Ebionites...gone...they had been centered in Jerusalem.
Most of the other rabble rousing sects were either hunted down, or went underground where they simply petered out.

So who survived?
...well...the Pharisees did.  The Pharisees, and their compelling message of applying God's will to daily life evolved into the rabbinical tradition from which modern Judaism derives.  Their emphasis on religious study and interpretation would form the foundation of a new tradition of scriptural commentary.

And...Paul's rag tag band of Jews survived...largely because, since he preached to the Gentiles, their churches were already scattered across the Mediterranean and not dependent on Jerusalem at all.  With the power base of Judaism gone it wasn't long before this fringe Jewish sect completed its transition into a completely stand alone religion.

A religion founded by Paul...Paul who demonized the Pharisees because they disagreed with him on matters of doctrine...Pharisees who became the direct antecedent of modern Judaism...initiating 2000 years of wonderful relations between Christianity and Judaism.  Jesus was a Jew.  Jesus's followers were Jews.  So how did Christianity evolve to hate Jews?  Paul laid that foundation.  Paul's followers made sure that his message got inserted into the Gospels which were largely written after Paul.  Thanks, Paul.


59. On 2006-09-19, NinJ said:

Its important to realize that, while today Judaism seems rather monolithic, with the only difference being how closely one follows the laws, in Jesus's time there were dozens and dozens of Jewish sects.

Come on, man. Judaism is now and has been (as of Babylonian Exodus) of tremendous variety. The nature of following the law is how the Orthodoxy likes to portray it, but in fact, the Jewish landscape is tremendously varied. The Lubavitch believe in the Moshiach who died in 1994. The Reconstructionists are creating ritual in a manner similar to the UU. The Reform started in the 18th century as an assimilationist movement trying to match the practice to Lutheranism and now most concerned with personal and passionate prayer and political activism. The Chasidim began in the 18th century as ecstatic mystics and are now considered an orthodoxy, while the Orthodox who started in the 19th century as modern response to the other movements going on at the time consider adherence to law to be the paramount element of Jewish life.

I'll tell you what: put me next to a Lubavitch dude and see how long it takes you to figure out serious theological and philosophical differences. (Hint: My mom wasn't Jewish when I was born. Another hint: I think the Universe is billions of years old.)

It looks monolithic if you don't consider the differences interesting, sure. But there are fundamental, paradigmatic differences.


60. On 2006-09-19, Valamir said:

I did say "seems".  And by that I simply mean how many folks have heard of Baptists vs. Methodists vs. Catholics vs. Presbyterians; compared to how many folks have heard of Lubavitch or Chasidim.

As for not considering the differences interesting...heck...I consider this stuff fascinating as if it weren't obvious already.  My Jewish history only goes through the late Medieval period and Maimonides so the recent stuff hasn't been on my radar.


61. On 2006-09-20, NinJ said:

Yeah, sorry, Ralph. I was being unfair.

That said, the understanding that you're talking about stems from an assumption that Jews are separate from the modern world, that the culture is some sort of living fossil. Between Madonna's "I'm a Kabbalist" horseshit and a general ignorance, it's like being a Navajo, you know? Judaism isn't something that happened and is over, just like there are still people who are Navajo who do modern stuff, just like you. We and they have different histories from each other and from everyone else, but history is not the sum total of our existence or theirs; we live in the 21st century, too. It belongs to us as much as it belongs to anyone else.


62. On 2006-09-20, Valamir said:

I can see this is a hot button for you so I won't press.  But I think there's more to it than incorrect and unfair assumptions about others, although that likely contributes.

There's alot of sheer marketing involved.  You can't swing a cat in most towns without hitting half a dozen different churches.  Drive to work and pass several churches with big signs out front.  Church league softball, TV preachers (and even nuns), door to door evangelists, bibles in hotel rooms. In the absence of similar bombardment its not really that surprising that most people aren't aware there is similar variety in Judaism.


63. On 2006-09-20, NinJ said:

I can't argue with that; Chrstianity is a marketing monster. Jews are traditionally fobidden from proselytizing (first by medieval Christian authorities, then later by internalized tradition). That's done a couple of things: one is that it makes the culture more insular than it needs to be. The other is that it's become, in recent years, mysterious and esoteric, thanks to the popularization of Kabbalah (which is really a wide variety of paradoxical traditions, writings, and techniques that nonetheless stem from a practical and comfortable understanding of the rest of the religion). So we get to be both around-the-corner-but-invisible and exotic "All is one" mystics.


If one (I'm not really talking about you, Ralph, but more about Sydney, and a little bit about Eero) is going to make comments about "religion" or certainly about "Judaeo-Christian" somethingorother, it's willfully ignorant to impose one's understanding on others' culture.

To state something merely takes the will to assert.

Asking a question takes nobility.


64. On 2006-09-20, Sydney Freedberg said:

Joshua, I appreciate your bringing an informed perspective on modern Judaism into the mix.

And to acknowledge something you said many posts back: Sydney, your assertion that "The Judaic-Christian-Islamic tradition in particular offers the answer, 'Okay, the universe is over, now we can start the really good stuff.'" is twaddle.

Fair catch; I threw "Judaic" in there sloppily. It's not a Judaic answer by any means; it's not even a good description of the Christian-Islamic answer. If people will allow me to rephrase:

The Christian-Islamic tradition in particular offers the answer, "If you thought this world was cool, in spite of entropy, death, cruelty, and general human unhappiness, wait 'till you see the next one!"


65. On 2006-10-01, Joe Prince said:

Apologies for jumping on late, I just heard about these threads by way of the Durham 3 podcasts. I've differentview than all those expressed at the top.

If religion is the opium of the people, I think spirituality is like a poppy seed bagel.

The way I see it, " spirituality" refers to any sort of belief that cannot be empirically validated. i.e. made up. When one of these belief systems becomes politicised then it becomes a religion. A means of political,  social, military and economic CONTROL.

I pity the US citizens who have been robbed of democracy by the mobilization of powerful religious groups, especially as you've been lumbered with Dubya because of it!

It's irrational to suppose the existence of magical beings, when there's an alternate theory that dosen't require them to exist (Occam's razor anyone?).

But don't take my word for when there's world famous biologist (and personal hero) Richard Dawkins on the case.
& here

These religious threads have been fun to read and I'm totally inspired to continue working on my religious RPG.

Clerics: My God's bigger than your God

I used to be a semi-practising agnostic but now I'm founding my own religion worshipping Uber-God (tm). I call it Theological Rationalism. Eternal salvation guaranteed or your money back!

Godot ain't coming.

Peace out you heathens ;-)



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