Professor Jem Bendell

notes from a strategist and educator on social and organisational change

Questions to Christians

Posted by jembendell on June 17, 2008

Over the years I have sometimes discussed religion, faith and spirituality with people at parties. I was asked to follow up with someone on this recently, and rather than providing explanations and references, in the first place I am writing down the questions I normally put to someone of faith. I pose these questions to explore with them the depth of their spiritual inquiry.

  • How can you be happy going to heaven knowing others have gone to hell?

  • Might your assumption or yearning for yourself to have an independent existence after death, worthy of being called or experienced as “you”, be a projection of ego consciousness, showing a fixation on your separate identity?

  • Given that you are not meant to worship material idols, why do you worship the bible, or sentences in it, when it is made of human invented things called “words” referring to human invented things called “concepts”

  • In a world of billions of people with their own histories cultures and belief systems, how can you believe you know the one right way, based on divine revelation to one group of people at one moment in time, without being racist or accepting that your God is racist?

  • Given that archaeological evidence from the past 100 years have highlighted how key elements of the biblical story, such as a ‘virgin’ birth, the numbers of disciplines, and some key Jesus teachings, were actually popular myths prior to the supposed lifetime of Jesus, how can you not wish to explore the historical and cultural origins and inventions of your religion?

  • Given the role of the roman empire in influencing what was chosen to be in the bible or be excluded, around 300 AD, shouldn’t you explore not only what was left out of the bible but also what the interests of the romans were in challenging existing spiritualities across europe at that time?

  • Given that those pre Christian European spiritualities, like many other non-Abrahamic spiritualities around the world, did not see a separation between the natural and spiritual realms, might that separation have been functional to forms of organisation and control that enabled those societies using Christianity to conquer more peoples and lands?

  • What might have been lost to our sense of self, community and world, due to that new understanding of natural-spiritual separation, which might be at the root of some of our problems today?

  • Why does your personal sense of joy and peace when you decide that doubts about your religion are mere tests of your faith, and that god transcends human understanding, validate your views and subsequent actions?

When I have some time in a week or two Ill write up the way the discussions normally go, and then the references I can recommend to help people follow up on the issues raised. Usually the questions do require a lot of explanation of the history of spiritualities, the development of religion, and Western notions of concepts and words.. and then alternatives that are as enriching, empowering and socially positive, as a feeling of being loved by “God”.

4 Responses to “Questions to Christians”

  1. Lala said

    Valid questions. And you’ve chosen a topic that’s been debated for ages and in pages, tends to be divisive, and can potentially create a thread longer than any of your previous posts. Brilliant🙂

    My two cents: History, Roman/European politics and ambitions, archeological proofs, and racial slurs aside, who would I rather be “god”? ME? (Both expressed and implied, i.e. Point #3: why worship someone’s “words”. Hmmm…so better if it’s my own words? my own concepts? So I’d rather worship what I choose, not those that were predetermined?)

    Ah, I’ve been there and done that. With other planets now being ‘discovered,’ surely the universe that I once knew does not have to revolve around imperfect me.

  2. jem said

    Thanks Lala. The questions I posed I wrote down for a couple of people I discussed this with recently, and then decided to post the on the blog, in order to become more public about these issues.

    The reason for being public is due to a concern about the damage that religion can do to those young people who have a desire to work for something greater than themselves. That intention arises in many people at some point in their life. In many cases it is not a result of religion. But then their desire to help can get framed by religion, as it provides a context for that desire. And so with the tenets of that religion a framework, they can either do damage due to notions of what is god, what is sin, what is Gods will etc, or struggle when they begin to question their faith. Thus they can feel somewhat sad and confused about the life they lead trying to help others, or the world, because they dont have a way of making things make sense in a conceptual way as well as an emotional one.

    In your reply to jump ahead to what you think the answers to these questions might imply for a new faith. The questions are not just rhetorical. I actually believe they are answerable, and in those answers there is a form of spirituality that is more honest. The idea that humility is important as a spiritual person, and thus intellectual humility, and thus we should not presume to make things up for ourselves, to play God, managed to keep me dishonest for decades. I see that teaching as a form of control, one which is shared by most religions and religious institutions. None of them want to you to look outside their fold for answers. The answer is not to play God, to worship your own words. The answers to the questions that Ill write in the coming weeks are not my own answers, but draw upon spiritual traditions that pre date the Bishops of Nicea and their own attempts to make things up for themselves. They will also be compatible with modern sciences of evolutionary biology, quantum physics and cosmology. Honesty is as important as humility, and for me intellectual humility implies an openness to any new idea, without fear of how it might make you feel, or how it might affect your spiritual worth. Resisting intellectual honesty in the name of humility is actually a form of pride.

  3. Ian said

    Hey Jem,

    Thanks again for these questions and the opportunity to dialogue. I can’t pretend to answer all of them and I’m not sure if it is even a good idea, but some of what I’ll write will touch upon a few of the questions.

    I think your third question with respect to the Bible would be a good starting point. From the outset, I should say that I’ve spent more time studying the Old Testament than the New, mainly because I couldn’t understand inscrutability of God found in the Old Testament. So, whilst on the surface I think it could be generalized that Christians worship the Bible but I’d also suggest that there are many that do not. The Bible itself is extremely complex and a rich insight into the character of God but doesn’t purport to have full claim on God as many Christians believe. The Old Testament gives us many clues to this and actually offers warnings that he is not to be compartmentalised, like in Amos 9:7

    Are not you Israelites
    the same to me as the Cushites [a] ?”
    declares the LORD .
    “Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt,
    the Philistines from Caphtor [b]
    and the Arameans from Kir?

    So my feeling is that the Jewish tradition was actually very aware of the indescriptability of God.

    For example, the Jewish tradition always offers metaphors for God such as father, warrior, judge, king, mother, artist, healer, gardener-vinedresser, shepherd, amongst many others. As Sallie McFague suggests, metaphor guards against idolatry in a testament that tend towards monotheism. So the certitude about their faith and indeed who God is that many Christians present, isn’t very biblical. There are certainly overriding themes but and elusiveness is ever apparent.

    Another argument that suggests that the Jewish tradition understood this is the plurality of their views about God. The scholarly consensus is that many of the books contained in the Old Testament were written during the Babylonian exile of 587 BCE. If this is the case, it presents a very different viewpoint of God because so many of the books provide so many different images of who God is, but during the same context. This then necessitates a re-questioning of the developmentalist viewpoint that is held by so many Christians that God was once violent and somehow learned grace and in turn, the supersessionist understanding that suggests that Christianity is the natural follow-on from Judaism. It also means that Christians need to deal with God’s propensity to be violent which cannot be denied as a reader of the Old Testament. Sure, there are contexts to consider etc. but Christians cannot overlook these kinds of things just because they’d prefer their own image of a God of love which leads to the next point about heaven and hell.

    I’m definitely no expert on this but I think Christians need to revisit this as a concept. I’m not suggesting that I have the answers (mainly because we have to rethink so many things!) but I think there is an underlying problem that goes beyond talking about heaven and hell, the idea of being saved. Personally, I think Christianity’s current ‘being saved’ model is very Cartesian. The whole idea that we can be an autonomous unit equates to the Christian guarantee that we have been saved as individuals and in turn are going to heaven. This whole idea of certitude is very disturbing and again contrary to what many of the God characterisations that are portrayed in the Bible. Questioning this, may help provide an understanding of heaven and hell. I’m less inclined to worry about heaven and hell and live the present moment. If we are in a covenantal relationship with God, then I’d prefer to start enjoying it now rather than waiting until after I die.

    Anyway, I’d recommend ‘Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy’ by Walter Brueggemann which addresses many of your questions including the one on historical and cultural origins. He says that the prophets for example, were not afraid to use much of the language and imagery of the hostile Canaanite fertility religions.

    Cheers
    Ian

  4. Tom Linton said

    A few things that crossed my mind as I read:

    – “How can you be happy going to heaven knowing others have gone to hell?”
    Is this a bit similar to the question: How have you managed to feel happy in life knowing that there were many in the world who were not?

    Can you explain more about what you mean by the natural and spiritual realms, and how the division occurred institutionally/sociologically, for example? How do the other major world religions of today compare on this (Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, say)?

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