Gospel & Universe
Believe it or Else
This page argues against religious coercion and against seeing metaphors as equations.
Threats - Metaphor & Dogma
Medieval Christianity insisted on one anthropomorphic definition of God and on one path to this God. History on the other hand tells us that there are many gods, many versions of God, and many paths.
Even if there's only one God, it doesn't follow that we must bend our knee in any particular fashion. Everything we've been told about It, and every reason we've been given to fear It, is soaked in myth and historical contingency. One could well believe in a God without believing that It 1) dons a beard, 2) speaks in Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, or Sanskrit, 3) has written down its plan for humanity on tablets or paper, or 4) will incinerate anyone who doubts Its existence or questions the manner in which others depict Its existence. If there's a God, It may well prefer to be defined openly. Or not at all.
In the Medieval period, Christians claimed a monopoly on the Grand Plan of the universe, and added the following threat: Believe It or else! Even today there hovers over Christianity a remnant of this crude Medieval dogma: if you doubt the capitalized Mysteries of the Bible -- and look for meaning in the uncapitalized mysteries of the universe around you -- you'll burn in a fiery pit.
One can see how early Christians misunderstood our place in the universe and why they chose faith and religion over reason and science. There was, until the Modern Age, no verifiable astronomy, geology, evolutionary theory, physiology, or genetics to explain anything from the stars to the human body. It was easier to integrate Aristotle with religion than to push his method of observation toward more scientific conclusions. Also, the range of human behaviour is so drastic that it seemed fair to believe in Heaven for good people and Hell for rapists and murderers -- especially in the absence of a modern system of justice or anything that resembled modern democracy or human rights.
Yet it isn’t so easy to account for the Medieval conviction about God and the human spirit. Why did they believe they had unique insight into the deepest corners of the soul and into the deepest operations of the universe? And why did they define their speculations in terms of hellfire dogma rather than doubt, open enquiry, compassion, respect, love, beauty, and truth -- especially since many of these were preached by the figure of Jesus? Why did they decide that anyone who disagreed with them was not simply wrong, but was also evil, and therefore doomed to the fires of Hell?
Many Christians have rejected the cruel exclusivity of the Medieval Church, yet many traditional Christians still think that if you don’t believe exclusively in Jesus, you're fundamentally inferior. You either lack a true spirit or this spirit's deficient and corrupt. If you don’t believe exclusively in Jesus then your spirit can’t be loved by God. It doesn't match the first class spirit of the believer. You aren't one of the Chosen, the Elect. As a result, you'll spend the rest of eternity in Hell, invaded by a hollow nothingness or tortured by fire and black devils with pitchforks.
How is it possible to square this type of thinking with ideals of love, justice, or equality? If one must discard love, justice, and equality for the sake of this type of dogma, what can this type of dogma be worth?
While Hindus, Buddhists, and Taoists have their own elitisms, prejudices, and irrational forms of belief, they at least don't condemn to eternal fire those who don't share their beliefs. Buddhists and Hindus do believe in Hells and do depict monsters torturing malevolent souls -- from the obvious hell of Boiling Excrement to the vague yet ominous Single Copper Cauldron. Here are two versions of Hell from Burma and Thailand, two regions where both Hindu and Buddhist ideas were prevalent:
Hindu and Buddhist hells are similar yet also crucially different from the Christian Hell: in Hinduism and Buddhism Hell is likewise used to scare people, yet it's the effect of a cause, not the effect of a belief. You don't go to Hell because you hold a particular conception of God or the universe. You go to Hell because you raped or murdered or stole food from a starving widow. If you commit evil actions (bad karma) then you'll enter a punishing afterlife or incarnation (bad samsara). This basic principle of justice crops up again and again in the Bible (Job 4:8, Proverbs 22:8, Jeremiah 17:10, Luke 6:38, Galatians 6:7, 2 Corinthians 9:6) and is summed up beautifully in the phrase, As ye sow so shall ye reap.
The phrase isn't As ye believe so shall ye reap.
I think it's a pity that the early Church didn't limit itself to this principle of justice, rather than the principle of elite belief, especially since the exact nature of Hell was far from set in stone. In most of the Old Testament Sheol is a vague afterlife realm, similar to that of the Mesopotamians and early Greeks. No matter what one believed, there was barely a glimmer of hope. This view of Hell appears to morph somewhat -- taking on something of the Tartarus/Elysium dichotomy of the Greeks and offering something of the Paradise found in Egypt and Persia -- and the concept seems to have been in flux. If it was indeed in flux then some type of choice must have operated in order to define the afterlife in one way and not another. The early Church could have made it a function of moral action rather than belief. They could have made it a place accessible to whoever lived a decent life, regardless of their speculative beliefs. Instead, they rejected thinkers like Origen, who argued for a wide scope of redemption, and paved the way -- with their elitist intentions -- to the wide fires of the unbelievers.
What does it mean, anyway, that God will cast into flames those who believe in reason and science and not in revelation and religion? What we mean by reason and science didn't exist in the Classical and Medieval Ages -- the time periods during which the hellfire doctrines were established. There was no scientific method and no body of scientific knowledge to explain the world: no laws of physics to hold the Earth in its orbit; no evolutionary model to show where our bodies come from; no DNA to explain how the complex chemistry of the body works. There were no good telescopes or microscopes to even start the conversation in the right direction. The Medieval priest who condemned the vain philosopher to eternal fires couldn't have been referring to today’s scientist or agnostic because such a person simply didn't exist. Perhaps if Christ were around today, he would find a job at the ALMA observatory high above the Atacama Desert.
I'm particularly fond of this observatory, both for what it's doing to advance astronomy and for its name: the Atacama Large Millimetre Array. The acronym ALMA means soul in Spanish. That a scientific observatory may be the home of soul might seem an irony. Yet from an agnostic perspective, it's a paradox.
Metaphor & Dogma
Because the Medieval Church set the terms for dogma in the West, and because their dogma continues to be supported by a complex, hallowed exegesis, many people today are ill-equipped to challenge it intellectually or to replace it with a viable alternative. Even when people explore alternatives, the old dogma can work deeply on the psyche. It can insinuate that what appears to be a metaphor is -- Mysteriously -- the literal Truth.
A metaphor equates two things that are similar but aren’t the same, with the understanding that there’s an implied comparison. This is different from a simile, in which the comparison's overt. The Church, unfortunately, convinced people that similes didn’t lie beneath their metaphors. They convinced people that like or as wasn't implied when they equated two things. What might have been framed as an overt comparison -- Communing with God is like drinking wine -- was instead framed as a metaphor that they then claimed to be a literal and miraculous Truth: You’re drinking the blood of Jesus. In other words they ignored the function of metaphor completely, and instead forced congregants to agree to a literal phrasing that contradicts everything they know about time and space. How are rational, practical people supposed to literally understand the phrase, Jesus walked on water?
In describing possible afterlives, they created vivid pictures of Heaven and Hell and then tried to make people believe these imaginary pictures were real places. The problem is that because we can’t be sure about the afterlife, we can’t be absolutely sure that these places don't exist. Even if we’re intent on a rational, metaphorical interpretation of Heaven and Hell, the emotions -- especially if we were indoctrinated as children -- capitalize the concepts and turn them into real places in our imaginations.
And then comes the inevitable threat: Believe it or else! Our minds understand the manipulation, yet our emotions conjure puffy clouds and plains of fire. Perhaps this is because these ideas are deeply embedded between our feelings and our thoughts, and between our thoughts and our inherited vocabulary -- that is, the vocabulary that's defined our place in the universe for over a thousand years. Even the simplest words and phrases -- forgiveness, guilt, fire, water, blood, grace, wicked, judgment, spirit, godless, saved, angelic, lost, good, evil, meet your Maker, damned if I know, heaven knows, go to hell, God knows, sure as hell -- are rife with fifteen centuries of Christian meaning.
Next: The Cosmic Casino