Thursday, 18 May 2017

Modern unbelief in God, the Holy Ghost, Christ and more

It is natural, normal, spontaneous to believe in God and in the world of the spirit (which I here term the Holy Ghost - I simply mean the immaterial divine as it permeates everything).

So how is it that modern people do not believe in either God or the Spirit? It is a matter of explaining-away - a matter of having alternative explanations for universal human experiences.

I know this from the decades when I was an atheist and a materialist - I had all the spontaneous intimations of the divine which people had in the past and continue to have in non-Western societies. That is, I felt that the universe of reality had purpose, hence meaning - that it was ordered rather than chaotic; that what happened mattered.

But I explained away this spontaneous insight as being, for example, a product of the way that humans evolved, or the way our sensory organs or brain just-happened to be made. This was a tragic thing for me, or anyone else, to do; because it meant that deep down I regarded everything that was and had been and could be - absolutely everything - as pointless and meaningless.

Such a conviction lay behind, or below all experience - undermining it, eroding it, subverting it into a conviction of delusion; it meant that I did not believe in my own experience, my own thinking...

The experience of everything being alive and sentient was equally solid - it was how I responded to the situation I was in, whenever I was aware of it. Sometimes it was a delightful benign and beautiful situation - at other times it was a deadly, oppressive sense of malignity around me. This I explained-away as a projection of my own emotions onto the surroundings.

And what of Jesus Christ? It is possible (many do) to believe in God and the Holy Ghost but not in Christ; but what is missing from such a belief? From my perspective the reality of Christ is mainly (but not only) about the possibility of becoming like Christ - Jesus was God as Man who was resurrected to eternal life and full divinity, as a gift which we may choose to accept.

In a nutshell, the reality of Christ is the reality of eternal family - which is, for me, necessary to a hope-full life. An eternity of solitude, even if it were blissful, is a sad, sad thing - a thing which would negate much of what has been most valued in my mortal life.

And more? Well, in this mortal life there is the mystery and magical otherness of Woman, and there is marriage; and the possibility that this too will be permanent and eternal. For me, this has become bound-up with my belief in the reality that God is both man and woman: both Heavenly Father and Mother. To accept the common idea that sex is a temporary state and marriage must end at death... these too are sad and lonely beliefs; which also undermine my spontaneous experience of life at-its-best.

Yet more? Creativity... this has been a big factor in my life; I mean the need to be writing, playing music, singing, connecting with literature, art... Is this just a pastime, a lifestyle? Or is it the same kind of thing that I would be expecting to do in eternity? Is eternity active, evolving, open-ended?

The alternative notion of an eternity that is timeless and in essentials changeless; perhaps worshipping or simply being... to some this is an ideal but to me this devalues my experience of what is Good. It is a kind of unbelief. I was delighted to discover and feel the truth of a view of Heaven and eternity as endless creativity.

In sum - the ideal is love: love implies people, family, marriage, children, creativity - all these, and more no doubt. Before any may be believed they must be understood and imaginatively entertained as possibilities - conviction may, or may not, follow....


Aaron said...

Just a small note -

You are misunderstanding the alternative view. It has never been conceived as "timeless" or "changeless". It has been conceived as a Mystery - beyond the categories of human thought. One cannot say that it is timeless OR changeless - OR their opposites. It cannot be apprehended using concepts. It is "Beyond". It is Transcendent.

A subtle point, and often confused - but crucial to get right, even if rejected. Correct understanding on this can be revelatory, for some.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Aaron - This is what I mean: it used to be my own view -

Aaron said...

I suppose you see me as trying to debunk simple narrative theological explanations in favor of complex intellectual ones.

But in fact, I am trying to move beyond intellection entirely.

From this perspective, simple narrative theological explanations, as well as complex intellectual ones, veil and obscure the core of religion, which is the Sacred Ineffable.

What you regard as a blemish - reaching the limits of ones capacity for comprehension - is precisely what is sought, in my perspective.

You think a man will abandon religion if he cannot understand it - I think what a man looks for in religion is precisely to go beyond what he can understand - to go beyond himself, and beyond this world.

I would submit that you are involved in a category misunderstanding.

You see timelessness as a positive affirmation that needs to be comprehended - but its function is precisely to lead us to the limits of comprehension, and thus beyond, to the Ineffable.

It is meant to help us transcend notions like eternity and finitude, concepts which apply to our experience in this world.

Thus seen, timelessness is not a stumbling block because it cannot be comprehended - indeed that is precisely its theological function.

So - simple theological narratives surely have their place, but in my view, their place is to lead one towards Mystery, not replace it, or obscure it.

I do not think people are afraid of Mystery, and seek refuge in the concrete.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Aaron - I just don't think you are correct about this.

The idea of God existing outside of Time is an abstract philosophical doctrine which was introduced to do a job in certain types of explanation. It was not primarily a mystery - but in a sense only declared one because people couldn't understand it. There isn't this mystery in the Bible - there isn't any reference to Time being a mystery. A commonsense idea of Time is assumed.

The Classical definition of the Holy Trinity likelwise - it was made a msytery because people could not make philosophical sense of the cotrine that (to put it crudely) Jesus was a God, and do was his Father, but there was nevertheless only one God.

I should make clear that I regard such philosophical disagreements as secondary - being a Christian (of any sort) is primary; metaphysics is secondary and varies very widely indeed.

Aaron said...

But the Bible surely alludes to a realm beyond the categories of human thought in this world. The Old Testament notion of God is also beyond the comprehension of the human intellect.

A God who is beyond the categories of human thought cannot be bounded by time, a human thought category.

Thus - the dilemma is inherent.

But - assuming you disagree with all this, and see no Mystery in the Bible, and believe the nature of God and our ultimate destiny to be comprehensible in terms of concepts that apply to the realm of our experience, and nothing more.

I wish merely to point out that one cannot correctly characterize the alternative to this view as a disagreement within the confines of dogmatic theology, as you did - i.e, as a series of positive affirmations that are meant to be comprehended by the human intellect.

'Timeless, changeless, worship, or static being' - taken as positive characterizations, miss the point. These terms have been used traditionally as part of negative theology.

As positive descriptors, I would agree with you in rejecting them as characterizations of God or Heaven. 'Simple being' sounds particularly dull.

But as negative theology pointing towards Mystery they evoke a response in me, and in the mystical literature that is how they are traditionally used.

Of course, you are free to reject Mystery for the concrete. But that is different from rejecting 'pure being' and 'timelessness', understood as they would be in terms of our experience in this world - as unrelieved dullness - in favor of creativity and love.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Aaron - You are misrepresnting me above - and using shaky inferences.

But that aside, I would say that people *must* have a positive idea of Heaven (and Christianity in general) and therefore they will. Negative theology has been used to try and constuct a positive image of Heaven - which is, not surprisingly, rather feeble. We must be able to say positive things about the life to come if it is to be an influence, and counterweight, to mortal life.

Nonetheless, Positive and Negative theology are a polarity - that is, they are extremes which can be distinguished but not divided. So negative theology always and inevitably makes positive statements; and positive theology must be hinting or pointing at things unsaid.

Mystical religion is not intrinsically negative, just as some of the most mystical poetry makes very concrete simple statements - thee mystery comes from juxtapositions, symbolism, and the unstated but known spiritual aspects associated etc. (The lyrics of William Blake are an example.)

And some of the dryest, most legalistic and materialist of theologians take the negative theology angle. It is, indeed, essentially an intellectual thing to proceed by negations as a matter of principle.

William Wildblood said...

Very interesting comments and I find myself agreeing with both of you! How is this possible? I suppose only because God encompasses and includes and goes beyond everything we can conceive or imagine. That's why he's God!

Bruce, can I ask how you reconcile what you say above about marriage with Christ's teaching that there is no marrying in heaven? I have always been drawn to the idea of twin souls, created together but often separated on earth for reasons of their development but I am never quite sure if this is deep intuition or wishful thinking.

Bruce Charlton said...

Dear William

You could browse the FAIR Mormon sections on eternal marriage

But in essence you would need a personal revelation on this point, and would need to pray for such.

Also, I think it an error to focus on the Bible a verse at a time, as it is not infallible, nor is our understanding of each verse infallible - the general context of the New Testament is certainly compatible with, seems supportive of the idea of eternal marriage etc. But in my understanding it was the unclarity of mainstream Christianity on this point (and on the matter of family in general) which was a major factor in the arising of the Mormon church - it is their special role in the modern world to clarify such matters for Christians.

Aaron said...


That is just what we disagree about! To be a "true" counterweight to mortal life, we need a Heaven that goes beyond anything we can conceive of. If we can conceive of it in terms of our earthly existence, it cannot be a "true" counterweight to our earthly life.

Do we truly wish for an extension of earthly existence, however glorified, or does man have a nameless yearning, which, if "named", loses its power?

Do we wish to be glorified humans, or go beyond the human?

Do we wish to remain within the finite categories of our intellect and its concept-forming function, or do we not intuit that beyond the boundaries of our mind lies an entire realm?

It has been said that our attempts to imagine Heaven have yielded feeble results.

Theory aside, as a practical fact religions which refuse to conceptualize Heaven and leave it as a mysterious beyond have shown incredible vitality - all of Buddhist East Asia. And it was an incredibly vital stream in Western religion during its strongest period.

You are right, negative theology is in principle an intellectual thing - but it is surely intellect trying to get beyond itself. It isn't an affirmation of intellect.

Positive theology may point to a beyond, and mystical religion can utilize imagery, symbolism, and paradox to hint at a reality beyond comprehension. But let us not take a symbol for reality, nor allow the formation of concepts keep us earth-bound, and our spirit in fetters.

Concreteness is probably necessary as a concession to popular religion, but we should always strive to raise minds beyond the concrete, I believe.

Bruce Charlton said...

Interestingly, this exact matter came up in my reading this afternoon - a brilliant essay about Owen Barfield by RJ Reilly from 1975, elucidating the Coleridge-Barfield polar metaphysics which enables and explains the evolution of consciousness; and that Time and History are vital to this scheme; and vital, too, to Christianity.

Chris said...

This thread appears to be touching on that age old controversy of which spiritual path is "higher"- bhakti or jnana. Many have claimed that the two are not mutually exclusive which I think is quite right. Neverteless, it seems to me that ultimately one cannot escape from having to "rank", as it were, a fundamentally theistic or non-theistic metaphysic.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Christ - "age old controversy" Well, not from my perspective! I am trying to introduce something new - which is the persepctive derived from Owen Barfield, which - if understood - is not age old.

Aaron said...

Chris - I don't think this is about Bahkti or Jnana - which are complementary, as you note - and Bruce and I are both theistic.

Bruce - Owen Barfield is new in that he combines age-old elements that have always been seen as incompatible - a highly developed individuality must coexist with a sense of cosmic unity, for instance.

The emotional background to this is a keen sense that our individuality is unsatisfactory, and a dislike for the obvious solution, self-surrender.

The result is a curious quality of thought circling back on itself. The brilliant insight into the inadequacy of existence and personhood is rounded out with a backhanded affirmation of both.

Thought cannot reach orbit, and remains earth-bound.

It will be interesting to see if this fusion of opposites can satisfy the spiritual yearnings of modern man.

Of course, this is just my view.

But I like Barfield, and I will look up that essay you mention. I am sure to learn something from it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Aaron - Thanks for your comments!