April 10, 2005

Duty to whom?

I recently engaged some Christians in discussion, arguing that the value of human life is to be found in more than serving others and, instead, that every person's worth is in our free will and the ability to set great tasks for ourselves, whether personal or social or spiritual. Unfortunately, they did not seem to understand this as anything more than selfishness, taking refuge in uninterpreted biblical quotation rather than engage the ideas I tried to present.

Via Echidne, here's a short speech Bill Moyers gave, accepting Harvard Medical's Global Environment Citizen award last December. Moyers, himself an ordained minister (Methodist, I believe, but don't quote me), challenges the anti-environmentalism of Rapture-fixated Christianity, and the silent complicity of the media in this anti-environmentalism:

The news can be the truth that sets us free—not only to feel but to fight for the future we want. And the will to fight is the antidote to despair, the cure for cynicism, and the answer to those faces looking back at me from those photographs on my desk [of his grandchildren]. What we need to match the science of human health is what the ancient Israelites called 'hocma' —the science of the heart.....the capacity to see....to feel....and then to act...as if the future depended on you. Believe me, it does. [his elipses]


Moyers is faithful to his God, but he is also faithful to himself, his family, his community, and his world. He finds value in all of it, not because he believes God has created it and it can glorify God, but because all of it is valuable in itself.

Similarly, Immanuel Kant understands what it means to glorify God and do His will not as slavishly following orders from above, but as holding all rational beings in equal respect (ourselves *and* others; what else could 'love your neighbor as yourself' mean?), and pursuing the moral duties we discover through reason (which Kant finds to be stated most eloquently in the Gospels). Soren Kierkegaard, the other Christian philosophy I brought up, argues that Christian devotion to God involves transcending morality, but this level of devotion to the transcendent involves, paradoxically, a deliberate, continuous choice in which the individual becomes completely isolated: Kierkegaard's Christian, striving to follow God's will, can still only find her worth only in herself.

Why would God give us free will, only to have us abandon that will in blind deference to Him? That's not love; that's empty, mindless devotion. I cannot accept the idea of a loving God who values me *only* because I stroke his ego with Hallelujiahs.

19 comments:

Jeff H said...

Where'd you get the "free will"?

Paula said...

You refer to these theologians, but what do you believe????

Paula said...

I am one of "those people" who believe that the Bible is literally true! As far as "the news can be the truth that sets us free", I respectfully disagree. The Bible says "you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free". I very much respect your knowledge, and pray God will use you and that knowledge in a powerful way. I just don't understand how people can find hope in a world without Christ. Thanks for sharing and challenging me!

Paula said...

You say Moyers is faithful to "his God", but who is his God??? If he doesn't believe the Bible is the word of God, then we don't believe in the same God. Maybe there lies the confusion.

Nettie said...

You turn to news reports to back up your statements. We turn to what WE believe, the Bible. Most Christians would be happy to engage in an honest discussion with you, try it sometime.

Noumena said...

First, I can't explain free will. I can't even really define or understand it: we just seem to have a way of causing things independent of the causes in the natural world. I don't believe the world as a whole is something we can understand, that existence is too much for us to us to capture within our finite, language-based thinking. But can you explain your free will, Jeff? How exactly did God create you, and how does your free will work?

Moyers is an ordained Baptist minister; I imagine he would agree that the Bible is the word of God, though of course I don't know him to ask him personally. In regards to the quotation, he was speaking about the quality of journalism, not trying to make a theological point.

I find the hope and purpose to my life in many of the same things you do: my friends and family, my career, my long-term plans and dreams of a better, more just world. But unlike you, I do not believe these come from anywhere but me, or that anyone can give my life meaning except myself.

Noumena said...

Nettie, I brought up Bill Moyers, Kant, and Kierkegaard as examples of Christian who, as I understand them, believe there is more to give our lives meaning than God: they each think God is important, but we are important in ourselves, not only because we can do God's will.

Noumena said...

Oh, and please don't assume I'm ignorant of Christianity because I'm an atheist. Both of my parents, the woman my dad is marrying in less than three weeks, several of my friends, and even the woman I've been involved in a very deep and complicated relationship for the past year are devout Christians. I've had intense conversations about religion with many of these people, and was even raised Christian. My atheism is the result of considered thought and reflection, and I constantly try to understand theists and theism better.

Nettie said...

I never assume. Thanks for your candor, I appreciate it.

Noumena said...

Keep in mind that, to the non-Christian, the Bible is only a book. Quoting it can illustrate your beliefs, but an explanation of your beliefs that starts and stops at 'it says so in the Bible' is a poor way to really share your beliefs with others -- or get a better understanding of your own.

Jeff H said...

http://www.haloscan.com/comments/believengod/111288091077821371/#18712

"a comments box seemed too restricting"

Apparently, this only applies to non-Christians posting at Christians' sites.

We use the Bible because it is the inspired Word of God, a record of His revelation of Himself to the world, and in itself a major part of that revelation. That you choose to ignore, or refuse to accept, that fact does not change that fact.

Or as I like to put it, "The truth doesn't require your belief for it to be the Truth."

Noumena said...

You're welcome to write more expansive posts on your own blog and share the URL here.

I might grant for the purpose of argument that the Bible is an expression of truth, but it is not itself truth; it seems like that would lead to some kind of identification of God or revelation and the report of that revelation that I don't think is your intention. My point was not to challenge the veracity of the Bible per se, but instead to point out the limits that presenting unexplained, out-of-context quotations from the Bible has in this sort of interfaith discussion.

For example, suppose you tried to argue your point with nothing more substantial than a 15-word quote from a Pauline epistle and a 'thus sayeth the LORD' (I'm caricaturing here!). While it may or may not be a convincing argument to a Christian, it's definitely not going to convince me, nor really give me any better an understanding of your POV. Arguments that go beyond the Bible need not require you to go beyond your faith.

Paula said...

Are you an atheist because of a lack belief or because there isn't enough evidence to affirm God's existence?? I want to get to know your heart, not your head.

MosBen said...

First I'd like to welcome all you fine people to our blog here. I share this space with Dan and a few of our friends and I can't express the utter confusion I was gripped with when I saw that there was an actual conversation taking place in one of our comments spaces!

To answer your question Paula, though it was not directed at me directly, I am an agnostic because I believe the ultimate metaphysical questions about life, the universe, and everything are unanswerable with any degree of certainty. I'm not opposed to the existence of some infinitely powerful creator, but I can't dedicate my entire worldview based on a sigle source of info. The Bible *may* be the literal word of God, but there's no real source to verify that fact outside of the fact that the Bible purports to be the literal word of God. I can't accept that any better than if Aristotle signed his works as the word of God.

MosBen said...

Furthermore, as pertains more closely to the gnostic part of the agnosticism, I think that if God *does* exist the magnitude of the reality of that existence is more than our very limited minds can truly comprehend. We talk about the various infinities God represents, but can we even conceive of what that really means? What does it mean to be infinitely strong? As Kant talks about, you get to the classical paradoxes of whether or not God can create a boulder that's too heavy for him to lift. These paradoxes seem to lead me, and Kant for that matter, that we really don't know what we're talking about when we talk about infinity. It's just a concept too big for us to imagine, so if there is a God it's impossible to really know anything about it.

Noumena said...

My reasons are complex and in certain respects quite personal. But, basically, I feel that the God described in the Bible, if he exists, is immoral: he condones, even commands, behavior I find reprehensible. I also have a variety of philosophical problems with theism in general -- which shouldn't be a surprise -- but I would say that is the reason I could not accept your God into my heart, even if I thought the idea of a god was really possible.

MosBen said...

Man, I'm really overcompensating for not getting in on this earlier.

About free will, I'm not entirely sure we have it. Again, we may, but it's unprovable in any sort of real way. It's equally possible that I choose to do things as it is that there's a giant puppetier controlling my actions.

Paula said...

MosBen and Sozialismus,
I believe we can end this discussion by saying we agree to disagree. Loving my God is something you have to get through your heart and not your head. I am praying for both of you whether or not you think He hears my requests. I wish you both much success and happiness.

MosBen said...

Thanks for stopping by Paula! I truly hope you all keep coming back here often and let us know what you think on all matter of subjects. When we started this site up I had high hopes that we could attract many and diverse opions and have great lively discussions. All your opinions, though not my own, are greatly appreciated and I hope to hear some more of them sooner rather than later.