The Difference between a Monologuer and a Dialoguer

I was talking with my dad last week about the benefits of dialogue and its difference from a culture of monologuers. What I mean by that is that many merely pontificate without any thought that they could be wrong. It’s like a choir with everyone singing their own parts dissonantly at fortissimo. This sets up a barrier around the person who sees himself as right and the search for truth. Of the few things I believe in, one doctrine is that no one has life all together, all figured out. If there are two people pursuing truth together and one lone person speaking on a topic, I will typically pick the former. Does that mean I always do that? No, two people can be twice as dumb as just one person. But I think if attitudes are checked, and one wants truth, I believe it is best to do that in a community where presuppositions can be laid bare and analyzed, where systems can be constructed from the ground up, little by little in dialogue and debate. The dialoguer is also different from the typical debater. Essentially the debate consists of two monologuers talking at each other, trying to persuade an audience to one’s side. However, they are not generally known for recognizing strengths in the other’s position or weaknesses in their own. That sets personality above truth, and I have a problem with that. True dialogue consists of two capable minds who respect the other’s contributions, respect their own capabilities, and love to see the sparks fly as they test, rebut, retry, poke, prod, whittle, polish, fell, or sand a topic.

I guess where I’m coming from is my life story of talking with people about theology. A typical conversation would go like this. One person starts with a theological position. Another would say, “That’s dumb. I believe this.” “Oh yah? That’s wrong. I believe thus.” It was a closed circle of argumentation. I don’t know if I could call it argumentation. Systems weren’t tried on for size to see what results might emerge. Weaknesses in logic weren’t recognized, generally because the ability of each was wanting. There wasn’t conversational intercourse. It was a circle jerk but with everyone looking away. Maybe that conjures the wrong picture. But I think it makes the point that most of my experiences with theological conversations were anything but mature adults being honest. Each essentially came to the table with the question, “Does this other person read the Bible the way I do, or think like I think?” If the answer was a negatory, that person had nothing of note to say. They could effectively be pushed to the margins as a heretic or ignoranti (I really don’t think this is a word, but it sounds smart. I don’t feel up to looking it up. Booyah). I was there once. I feel I’m much more open to talking through things with people. There are times, though, when my defenses are up, particularly with someone who is subconsciously other than me. Only when they smack me in the face or say something off-putting do I get snapped back to reality and realize my fallibility. Then I have the opportunity to stop and consider my similarities with the other, and see what we can build together. Maybe that’s a hippie notion, but I think it’s beautiful, and I’m caring less what others think of my opinions these days.

So How about That Fall (not the season)?

I’ve been thinking about the Christian doctrine of “The Fall” off and on again since my post on the problem of evil. As I grew up, Jack Chick (remember those comic book style evangelistic tracts?) had a pretty big influence on my 10 year old budding theology. According to him, and many others, evil entered the world after Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden. Through that act, the universally human propensity to sin, humanity’s total depravity from birth, the corruption of creation, the relational strife between all people, etc. came into being. I’d like to hone in on the corruption of creation. Maybe another question might help clear up this corruption nuance: why is “Mother” nature such a raging bitch?

For the sake of discussion, I’m laying out how I see my former Evangelicalism portraying the corruption of creation, and then list some questions I have for it. We are told in the Genesis account that there was no death before Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience. We are told that God saw his creation as good. Humankind, the apex of God’s creation and the last entity created, was called “very good.” Supposedly (this is never explicitly stated, but a pretty safe assumption based on what’s said in Genesis), every creature was vegetarian, because there was no death.

Now, once disobedience entered the world, evil did, too. Death and decay entered in the wake of perfection. The favorite verse of misogynists states that there would be pain for women in childbearing. Man was cursed to work the ground by the sweat of his brow (some have attempted to work out a theology of work pre-fall. You can look it up. I have no desire to spell that out here, and I find it terribly unconvincing). There would be gender wars, wars between family members, clothing had to be made by butchering animals (hehe, or fig leaves if you prefer). Now the following is never stated in the Genesis or other accounts, but I have heard it promulgated in enough places to consider it an Evangelical/Christian belief: all natural evil stems from the Fall. By natural evil, I mean natural disasters, sickness/disease, survival of the fittest among animals, and other unnecessary pain that is part of nature.

Here’s a bit of a detour. What is evil? I have heard it said by Augustine that evil is the privation of good. That probably applies most easily to moral evils. Theft would be the privation of the good of ownership. Murder would be the privation of the good of life. Dishonesty would be the privation of honesty. Allegedly, that makes evil a nonentity so that God is absolved from creating evil, given that he is the creator of all that exists. But what does that definition do to the very real entity of natural evil, like boiling hot magma enveloping the city of Pompeii? Let’s say God isn’t involved in every natural disaster that happened, but just lets it happen because that’s just the way things are after the Fall; does that indicate that he deprived his earlier creation of its intrinsic goodness? Or to put it another way, did tornados/earthquakes/volcanoes/floods/hurricanes/famines exist before or after the Fall? Did the very good creation contain those natural disasters intrinsically? Did God create these phenomena afterward to teach humanity a lesson, so that there were actually two creations, one very good and the other also very good, but good at being bad?

Some, like John Hick (soul-making theodicy [defense of God’s justice in the face of evil] here), have brought up the fact that gravity most certainly existed before the Fall. And if cliffs just happened to exist, and there was hard ground 200 feet below them, a tumble might take its toll on one’s self-actualization. The potentiality of toe-stubbing also probably existed pre-Fall, too (I don’t recall if these are his exact examples, but if not, booyah). But again, such instances have to do with someone’s clumsiness or obliviousness. Let’s say Adam and Eve built a shanty on the edge of the Nile. Would it be destroyed by the yearly flood cycles, or would floods simply not have existed yet in a perfect world?

What I’m aiming at is did God create natural evil (I guess before or after doesn’t really matter), or does the notion of natural “evil” tend to speak against the existence of God as we understand him—all powerful, knowledgeable, and benevolent? To put it ambiguously clearly, should we change “God” to “god”? Or a third option, does he put it there to test people? Or does he have some unstated purpose in this, and we just have to float through life making up meaning as we go? Or is he not all that benevolent? When I had a kid, I wanted to make the world the best I can for him. That world I speak of is limited to my sphere of influence, in that I can only do so much toward it, by providing an income, sagely advice (hehe, we’ll see how sagely I am when I have to deal with his probably hellion ways), loving acceptance, direction, and just being there. Enter my broken record: where’s the all powerful, wise, and good God in this world that extends beyond the one I control? Do I need to redefine things as they pertain to God? For that matter, is God even extra-linguistic, have an existence outside language games?

I discussed the existence of tornados with one of my friends, and asked him if they came from creation or after the fall. He said they aren’t really considered evil until human beings start getting (enter my putting words in his mouth) impaled by foreign objects. I’ll grant that. Let’s say all natural disasters existed before the Fall, floods, volcanoes, earthquakes, blizzards, tsunamis, what have you. Adam and Eve simply didn’t care because none of those (save maybe floods) would have touched their existence in the Ancient Near East. But what about the carnivorousness that seems intrinsic to lions, and the herbivoreness that seems intrinsic to gazelles; why were the poor latter created with nerve endings? It honestly serves no purpose than to give them horrendous feeling while they’re being eviscerated by the former. Did pain receptors only magically appear after said Fall? What about cognitive bias? What about the ability to drown? Were lions intrinsically motivated not to eat our only human parents alive at the time? In fact, if carnivorousness existed from creation, and God created all the species that exist now (which isn’t the case), how many species died per day after creation? Shouldn’t there have been a pretty quick mass extinction through food shortage? And why the hell were mosquitoes created? There’s no way they weren’t annoying everything in existence before the Fall. If God exists, at best he has a sense of humor at others’ expense. I’ll admit, it’s pretty funny to witness someone swatting at “nothing” as they walk through cobwebs and attempt to fling good Charlotte from her body, but why do such insidious beasts exist at all in a very good creation? Maybe evolution is a result of the fall, and that’s where all the annoying and terrible creatures came from!

There are a few possible answers to all of these questions. One of the possibilities would be adjusting our definitions of the Western concept of God from being all good, powerful, and wise, to not being all or some of those to the nth degree. Process theism has done this to some degree. Another option is that he exists, but chooses to hide very convincingly. Another option is that our senses and everything derived from them (i.e., science) are misleading. Another possibility could be admitting ignorance/agnosticism, and not engage in conjecture about things which are unseen from those that are. Perhaps God will, as Robert M. Price has stated it (I forgot if it was here or here), put on a seminar on the other side about how and why things really are, particularly for those curious jokerpantses like me.

As always, if you got something to say drop a line in the comments section or my email at ilostmyprayerhanky AT mail to the g DOT com. I like conversing. I don’t gots all the answers. You probably don’t either. If you do, I’ll save you some time: you’re a moron and there is no point in us shouting each other down, or each of us bending over to have a pooping contest to see who gets stained first. However, in dialogue, we get more than we had before. It’s like steak and beans, but better.

What’s Faith For?

In conversations with some close family and a close friend, I have heard mentioned the necessity and importance of faith in approaching god. When I have proposed that god is utterly absent from my experience, and then stated that it’s rather hard to base my life off of something or live in submission to someone for which there is not more than dubious evidence (in my experience and studies), they assert that faith is required. Why is it required? What makes god special in this instance that faith is required and not direct relationship?

When my car is broken, I don’t take it to someone who doesn’t for sure know how to work on cars, or has faith to fix it but no credentials; I take it to ASE certified mechanics. When I make a decision to attend a school, I consult counsel: career counselors, professors, friends, students. I do have inner monologue, but I attribute that to self-talk, not prayer/consultation with some entity who at best communicates to me through my own thoughts. Faith just seems an utterly weak position when there are more concrete options to consider. In every decision I come to, no, I do not make it with bird’s eye objectivity. But neither does the person who consults his or her god. They are just as embedded in their context as I am. I fail to understand how the element of faith adds to or diminishes vitality, wisdom, or direction in my life. Yes there are times where I make decisions without all the evidence at my disposal. Who doesn’t? I don’t call that faith. I call that life. We walk about in the dark, because that’s what life is. We don’t have all the information at hand. We don’t always make the best choices. We are human beings. If god spoke through much less convoluted means, I would grant faith more credence. However, as the word is presented to me, it is used as something differentiated from the faculties of reason and experience, a move I feel very uncomfortable with.

Here’s something of my experience with faith. There was a used van for sale. I asked the seller what was wrong with it besides the mileage. He said there was nothing wrong with the vehicle except its mileage. So I trusted him on that, not knowing the man, and foolishly, not taking it for a test drive. I trusted this man whom I did not know. What I got was a faulty electrical system, a right-at-the-end-of-its-life transmission, a near dead battery. That’s what I got for faith.

I’ve learned my lesson. A wiser person would have asked more questions than I did, ran it for a test drive, and taken it to a mechanic to check it out because we don’t take peoples’ word for things. We have to confirm things. We don’t accept colleges’ and universities’ claims to being reliable institutions; we run them through the gauntlet of accreditation. Continually. Where’s god’s accreditation process? Where’s his test drive? Why do people accept what the bible says with sometimes the level of trust that I had in the sleezy van salesman? Why does that seem to be the only area where we don’t bring our intellectual muscle to bear?

Another, more personal example. Growing up in a time and place where the distance between puberty and marriage continues to widen, I shared the experience of many Christian men in trying to maintain sexual purity in the modern age. The same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead was available to me to give life to my mortal body. In Christ’s absence, he left his Spirit to guide me into all truth and righteousness. So when there was temptation to look at pornography or do anything else, God would not let me be tempted beyond what I could bear. Sometimes I would/could resist. The temptation’d be there, but I’d be abstinent for months. Other times no. I guess I thought the power of god would show up more powerfully than it did, calming the raging sea of my hormones. I expected the grandeur of what is present in the biblical account. Where was this power? Was there more to this thing than words on a page?

I think the way in which the word “faith” is used today is far different than how it was used in the bible. Faith was used in places like Hebrews 11 as “trust” based on the past acts of god in history. The Israelites had their Exodus. The earliest Christians had Jesus’ direct life to appeal to. What happens, though, when I’m a Westerner, gentile, around 1900 years removed from the latest supposed revelation, and have no experience of this god whatsoever? Do I trust the murky historical and literary evidence at hand, ignoring or playing gymnastics with all the critical issues that exist? Do I downplay my own reason and experience in light of Christian tradition? I don’t see how that makes sense. I hold out hope for some reason, that if god exists, god will reveal something to me that would excite me to exhibit trust. Otherwise, the god of the bible is just another salesman with a used van, a degree mill with no accreditation.

Though some of my writing may come off as if I am static in my position or unwilling to change, it’s just a place I’m in at the moment. I desire fellowship and counsel in this lonely place. What has the God of the Bible done in your life that prompts you to trust him? What feeds your daily faith in him? If you have dealt with the critical difficulties surrounding using the Bible as a source of faith and theology, what are some ways you have done so? I’m at a place where I don’t trust Jesus, the Bible, or the God handed down. I’d like to, but I don’t. If you have help to offer, I’m all ears. Mind you, I will ask a lot of questions, but not because I’m combative. It’s just, after certain experiences, I can “never see with virgin eyes again” (Missy Higgins lyric; and, no, I’m not calling people who haven’t had my experiences “virgins”; never mind what I mean because now I don’t know what I mean lol).

What Is Religion?

I used to find this an easy question to answer: people worship their own god(s) with various ceremonies and rituals, think about him/her/them within a certain community of interpretation, and plan their lives according to the dictates of their god’s/gods’ commands. The first stumbling block to that definition is the atheistic strains of Buddhism. If I consider Buddhism a religion, do I merely need to hack off a significant portion of my definition, or go back to the drawing board? My working assumption now is so nebulous as to be almost useless. Religion is what people do in response to their understanding of transcendence, whether that involves divinities or not. This can involve the atheist who muses upon her meaning in life or the devout nun who considers her life under the umbrella of tradition. Religion as I see it transcends the self; if it involves merely the self, I attribute that more to a personal mission statement or philosophy. And the language I use still might preclude other religious understandings. I am one man on his way, trying to understand a lot of data out there. Religion is active, religion does, religion thinks. I won’t merely say that religion is. Mere nominal associations do not make a lot of sense to me. If someone does not act or think like X religion, they are probably a weak representation or non-representative of faith X. While I do have to account for the cultural expressions of religion, I tend to relegate these more to accidents than to essential elements of a religion. Again, these are working assumptions. I look forward to my time at MSU and elsewhere in developing my views toward religion and the religions of the world.