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Steve Likes to Curse
Writing, comics and random thoughts from really a rather vulgar man
Steve and Woody: A Theological Conversation 
Friday, December 19th, 2008 | 03:03 pm [religion]
Steve
This is the best part of writing a blog. A guy named Woody read a copy of my Moses article I published at Associated Content and left a comment, and we started a debate/discussion about Moses and the Old Testament portrayal of God and . . . well, this is like catnip to me. Woody wanted to continue our discussion in a more convenient forum than just swapping emails, so here we are. With his permission, I'll post our exchanges to date below, and then he and I will be along with subsequent replies to continue the conversation.

Here's what we've been talking about so far, compiled together courtesy of Woody:
QUOTE=STEVE
I'll grant you that the passage doesn't explicitly specify that the captured women were to be raped. But what do you presume these "husbands" intended to do with the wives they "took for themselves" from these prisoners? The fact that the sexual intercourse they had with the Israelites took place within an acceptable marital union changes nothing. Presumably these women (or a great many of them, at the very least) did not consent to these marriage, or did so under threat. How could they have done otherwise? These men were responsible for the murder and pillaging of their entire society. How can you possibly defend what the Israelites did to these people? If "rape" is too harsh a word for you, fine. They claimed young women as wives, as though they were property, spoils of war like the livestock they took from the Midianites.

QUOTE=WOODY
First, the Israelite men would have taken the young women into their homes and a wedding would have taken place. Yes, it was against their will. But, I have to say that it is better than the alternative, which is death. I don't know if you would agree with that, but it seems reasonable to me. The fact that it would have taken place during a marital union does matter. Those women would have the same rights as any other Israelite woman. Even foreigners in Israelite land would have rights and were expected to participate in the culture. She would not have been abused.

QUOTE=STEVE
You conceded that the marriages of the captured Midianite women to the Israelite men were forced, but said that an unwanted marriage was better than the alternative, which was death. I'm no fan of death, especially when I'm the one who's to die, so I would agree with you. But this is a false premise — the alternative to the forced marriage was only death because the deplorable law of the Israelites, given by God himself, declared it so. There would have been many other alternatives available. The best one I can think of is just to not murder all the men and burn down the city in the first place. The Israelites had a choice. They had disobeyed God and Moses before. Why were they so eagerly obedient to carry out an order for genocide and mass-infanticide?

QUOTE=WOODY
In order for God to carry out His will, and the Israelites to obey that will, there wasn't another alternative. Remember, God destroyed the world with a flood at one point because of the wickedness of the people. He didn't change His ways. When a nation or people would not live according to the dictates that God gave in the very beginning of time, He would sometimes destroy them. He did spare some peoples, including Ninevah, though Jonah wanted the city destroyed. I don't agree that they were "eagerly obedient to carry out the order". That's not indicated in the text and we have no reason to suppose it. Why didn't they disobey? I don't know, but they had disobeyed many times in the past, but were obedient at other times. I suppose we would have to go back in time and ask them (seriously).

QUOTE=STEVE
     They also committed mass infanticide. You try to explain this away by saying I'm only judging by my modern secular standards, not the standards of the time in which these events supposedly took place. But what does that tell you about the moral standards of the time? You strike me as an intelligent and reasonable person. Can you honestly tell me that the acts committed in this story against the people of Midian, including thousands of blameless innocents, are anything other than monstrous atrocities?

QUOTE=WOODY
    I don't speak for God as he knows how insufficient I would be at that task. Yes, the events that happened were troublesome and I myself have struggled with the implications of approving of these actions. However, since I am the created and not the Creator, I don't really have the knowledge or understanding that God does.

  God has far more infinite understanding and foreknowledge of history, from beginning to end. Since I am a limited being, I surmise that I cannot accurately or possibly judge the situation better than He can. That may not be a good enough answer, and may even be perceived as a cop-out. Yet it is, in my mind, a factual and balanced assessment of the situation. 

  The moral standards were actually the opposite of what you suppose.  God set a realistic standard with Adam and Eve.  They couldn't follow one simple command.  Cain couldn't even keep himself from killing his brother.  That wasn't God's fault.  Instead of owning up to Cain's faults, he dealt with it by killing his righteous brother.

  Thanks for the compliment about being intelligent, but I beg to differ :) I can tell you that those acts against Midian were sanctioned by God and therefore not up to me to decide the morality of.  He told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac and Abraham was ready to do so.  An odd command, don't you think?  But Abraham knew that God promised he would be the father of many nations and he also knew that God could raise his son from the dead if He wished to do so.  It's having faith that God knows better than I.  And, I feel the same way.  If God were to come down and give me a command I would have to have faith that God knew what He was doing.

  I read the passages again last night.  It seems that there 12,000 Israelite soldiers (1,000 from each tribe) who went up against the Midianites.  There were 16,000 virgins listed among the Midians.  We don't know how many men and "non-virgin" women there were. This wasn't a global scale death scene like happened in the flood.  It was comparitively small in proportion to that event.  Five kings, one false prophet and thousands of men and women were killed.  The Kings were a priority as they were in opposition to Israel.  The false prophet led the people astray and the men and women were killed so that there would be no children born to them to rise up against Israel in the future.  A purpose was served.

QUOTE=STEVE
    The verse displayed with the picture is a joke. It's a picture of Charlton Heston portraying Moses from the film The Ten Commandments, and the "verse" is intentionally coarse and over-the-top. It's intended humorously, not as a quotation from an actually Bible verse, and that's how I think most people who read the article take it. Though I should add that, even as outrageous as it is, it doesn't differ in its content from what God says in the actual verse. He does order Moses to commit genocide and mass infanticide, and to set some of the spoils of war, including the women, aside for him.

QUOTE=WOODY
   I still think that it's in poor taste as those who do not know the Scriptures like I do, or won't take the time to check it out for themselves are led to believe that's what the text says and it isn't.  It is grave matter to change the words of Scripture, fail to provide the reference for the text and present it as factual.  Many people would not realize it's not an actual quote.  Yes, it does differ in content - very much so.  There is no record of God calling for rape.  Rape serves no purpose but to humiliate and fulfill one's perverse desires.  God's not in that business.  Take your life, yes.  Rape you, no.  By the way, our country has committed infanticide, as a secular law in proportions that make God's command against the Midianites pale in comparison.  Approximate number is over 40 million since Roe v. Wade, mostly based on convenience.  God never killed anyone because it was convenient.

QUOTE=STEVE
   So the atrocities committed by God, and by the Israelites at God's behest, are excusable because they were committed against people who had themselves engaged in "horrific acts"? What sort of morality is this? And what horrific acts did these people commit to justify being murdered or enslaved en masse by the Israelites? Worshipping false gods? Professing the wrong creed, reciting the wrong prayers? The excuse given for the decimation of the Midianites is that they sent women to seduce the Israelites. This is a reason to wipe out the entire race? If the God of the Bible is the guide of our morality, how is it that our moral ideals have evolved so radically in just a few thousand years, so that any decent, compassionate human being would regard the crimes of God and the Israelites in the Torah as among the worst atrocities ever committed?

QUOTE=WOODY
   I would have to check my Bible again, but I believe there were about 2 instances where women and children were also killed. In the passage that we have been discussing, the women and children were spared. I don't have those passages in front of me, but I believe that they were cases where the entire nation had to be destroyed because there was simply no point of return for those peoples.

   As I alluded to earlier, there were probably under 30,000 people who were killed.  It wasn't like 350 million people of the US were destroyed.  That may not be any consolation to you, but it's clear that this command by God was limited in scope.  Apparently, it was enough for God to wipe them out, among who knows what other reasons He may or may not have had. 

   Again, these peoples who were destroyed for many reasons. For some, they were entirely wicked, such as Sodom and Gomorrah. Some, such as Ninevah, were spared God's wrath. Some had completely turned away from God and persecuted the children of Israel. Maybe you haven't read of the other nations who enslaved and punished Israel (ala Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria).

   Israel suffered 400 years under Egyptian rule. 400 years of slavery would, in my opinion, be worse than having a swift death. No, the Israelites were not generally a holy people. They continually turned away from God. There were many wicked kings and they suffered the same fate as the unbelieving peoples they destroyed.

QUOTE=STEVE
    First, I see no evidence in the Bible that the Israelites were a holy people. They behaved no better than the other tribes mentioned, and at times behaved far, far worse. They are bloodthirsty, warlike, and repeatedly ungrateful and disloyal to the God who has chosen them, for some reason, as his people.

QUOTE=WOODY
   Of course, they were not perfect.  They were a sanctified people, however, which means that they were set apart by God to be a holy nation.  They often faltered as the OT clearly shows.  I have to disagree that they didn't behave any better than the other tribes.  They didn't sacrifice their own children to the false god/demon, Molech.  The Israelites had strict laws, the like of which cannot be found anywhere on earth then or now.  They had a very strict moral code given to them through the very man you detest, Moses.  That's why your moral arguments make no sense in a way.  Here you have God giving Moses the Ten Commandments and then the total 613 commandments.  In that was the prohibition against killing.  So, either God is bi-polar (or Moses is) or there's a moral difference between the law God instituted and the greater plan of creating the holy state of Israel, which demanded that the peoples inhabiting the Promised Land be forced out or killed.  In God's mind there must be a difference.  The Israelites knew the difference.  They were given the law.  They understood it.  And here we are 3,500 plus years later figuring it out for them.  Is it possible that they knew something not written in Scripture?  Is it possible that we simply don't have all the facts?  I think so.

 The bottom line is that God is not answerable to me. I can only judge by the limited capacity that my mind is capable of. Of course, God is omnipotent. You've probably heard the many arguments of free-will, robot creations and what not. It is the cosmic question that everyone wants answers to. Why is there evil? Why couldn't God have just created us perfect? Why tempt us?

  I don't believe you and I could figure that out in short order. There's not a human alive who has fully understood the mind of God and the mysteries in life. We can either spend our lives in philosophy or live our lives with the knowledge we have. I've went down the path of philosophy. I ended up becoming just as confused and unhappy as ever.

  We tend to blame God for these kinds of actions and question his morality. We see that man has committed far worse atrocities. Space would not be sufficient to speak of Hitler, Pol Pot, Rwanda, Hiroshima and so many other mass killings that humankind has perpetrated on one another.

QUOTE=STEVE
   Secondly, you mentioned the atrocities humanity has committed throughout its history that are as bad or worse than any detailed in the stories of the Bible.  You mentioned Hitler, Pol Pot, the bombing of Hiroshima.  I agree completely.  These were cruel, vicious, inexcusable crimes (though there are some good arguments in favor of Hiroshima, atrocious though it was).  My point is that the crimes portrayed in the Bible, those of Moses and others, including God himself, would be no different had they actually occurred.  If Moses were leading the Israelites today on a campaign of murder and conquest, their history of slavery and repression would be no excuse, and no right-thinking person from outside their number could possibly condone what they were doing.  Yet Christians and Jews condemn Hitler as the monster of the 20th century, while admiring Moses as a hero and a great and holy man.

QUOTE=WOODY
   I can bet you that if an Islamic country invaded America (hypothetically) and enslaved us for 400 years, our culture would think it perfectly legitimate to revolt and decimate the invaders.  Heck, our founding fathers revolted over taxes! And subsequently waged war and got their freedom.  Sometimes war is inevitable and there are just causes for some of them, like WW1 and WW2.  Look at how many millions of people died on both sides during those times.  It was a worthy cause.  Many people were killed so that others may have life and freedom.  I petition that the same thing applies to the cases in Scripture we have been discussing.

QUOTE=STEVE
   Second, I assume, then, that you don't believe God to be omnipotent. If God were all-powerful, or even simply competent, then such "messy" measures to fulfill his plans would not have been necessary. I know the common argument, that it was the free will of man which caused all the problems, not God. But even granting that, you're telling me that the God who created the universe from nothing, the God who is repeatedly referred to as the ultimate force in creation, not only put such a poor, shortsighted, narrowly focused plan for humanity into practice in the first place, but then couldn't think of any better way to fix it when things went wrong than by shedding buckets and buckets of blood, torturing and enslaving and killing thousands and thousands of innocent people, and eventually putting his own son/himself to death in one of the most gruesome ways imaginable?

You can believe in an omnipotent God, or you can believe in the God of the Bible. But it seems to me you can't have both. No being of true ultimate power and knowledge could ever demonstrate the immeasurable incompetence of the Judeo-Christian God, not if the term "omnipotence" is to have any meaning.

QUOTE=WOODY
   I just believe this is a false dichotomy that you have to have one or the other and that they are mutually exclusive.  First, it wasn't a poor, short-sighted plan that He had for mankind.  It was necessary to put man to the test to see what he was made of.  He failed.  And still today we have a world population that is saying the same thing they always have - they take no responbility for their actions, but blame God for creating us this way in the first place.  The assumption is wrong that He created us this way.  He didn't.  He created Adam in a perfected, conditional state.  He created him in His image. 

  Instead of thinking that God is somehow a bumbling fool (not that you have), might we consider that this is the way it had to be and is beyond our comprehension?  I mean, if God created us and we are the created (as Christians believe and teach), then He is obviously a more intelligent being than we are with greater capacity for understanding.   First, I don't know if you meant it or not, but God did not torture people.  Put them in slavery - yes.  Take their life? yes.  He does not torture, which is just a sadistic flaw of mankind.  Jesus willingly suffered for the whole of humanity.  He had the choice to sacrifice himself.  So, it's incorrect to say that God put Him to death in a real literal sense.  He planned it that way, but He left the choice to Jesus to fulfill.

  Okay, about blood.  Blood is a literal and figurative understanding of life.  When a human life or animal life is expected, blood being shed is both a literal and figurative reality.  "Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins".  This is true.  Why it is this way I couldn't tell you.  You would have to ask God yourself.  But, since we are beings whose physical life depends on blood, it only makes sense that when life is demanded, blood is spilled.

  I'm surprised you haven't mentioned the state of "hell" for unbelievers (which is traditional Christian theology).  It seems that given your genuine care for mankind, this would be a problem for you.  I realize that is another matter altogether, but the thought just occurred to me that this is so.

  Okay, I've done my best to include everything we have discussed before and put it in the right place and context to be easily readable.  My apologies if I have not made that so.  I honestly would like to see us take our dialogue to another format which is easier to use and keep track of.  Regardless, however you would like to proceed is fine.  I will do my best with the format you feel is best.  I would suggest, however, that if we keep to this kind of format, that it be a "running" dialogue in one file so that we can see the progression of the conversation easily.

   I look forward to your thoughts.

   Sincerely,

   Woody

My response to Woody comes next in the thread, then hopefully Woody will be along to keep it going.  Anyone else who finds this the least bit interesting should come and play, too. But no making people cry! (McAsherson, I'm looking at you.)

Comments 
Friday, December 19th, 2008 | 08:28 pm (UTC) - Steve and Woody: A theological conversation continued
Woody, there are so many things you mentioned in those most recent responses of yours that I'll have to take them one at a time or this will be like swapping essays (not that that would be a bad thing, necessarily). Here's the first one that jumped out at me. You said, regarding the Israelites in the Old Testament:

I can bet you that if an Islamic country invaded America (hypothetically) and enslaved us for 400 years, our culture would think it perfectly legitimate to revolt and decimate the invaders. Heck, our founding fathers revolted over taxes! And subsequently waged war and got their freedom. Sometimes war is inevitable and there are just causes for some of them, like WW1 and WW2. Look at how many millions of people died on both sides during those times. It was a worthy cause. Many people were killed so that others may have life and freedom. I petition that the same thing applies to the cases in Scripture we have been discussing.

I totally agree with you that if the people of the United States had suffered as the Israelites had suffered, we would be raring for some payback when the opportunity came. But that would not justify us in committing genocide against our oppressors. You cite the American Revolution and the First and Second World Wars, but I don't think they are analogous to the campaigns the Israelites undertake with Moses in the Old Testament.

The American cause in the Revolution was to win independence from Britain and acheive peaceful coexistence, not to wipe Britain off the map. The Israelites, led by Moses and under orders from God himself, were far more brutal than the Americans in the Revolution, or the Allies in the First and Second World Wars. The genocidal leader in World War II is now almost universally recognized as the enemy in WWII, even in (especially in) his former native land of Germany. Genocide is an evil act. Infanticide is an evil act. If the God of the Bible was truly as powerful as he insists, he surely could have found a way to get the Israelites to their promised land that didn't involve war and torture and the death and suffering of thousands of innocents.

There's another point I have to make, hopefully briefly. The 400 years of slavery and suffering by the Israelites would not excuse their later crimes, but it would definitely explain them. And, to return to the real world, it certainly explains where the myths of the Old Testament came from and why they were clung to so fervently. If the Israelites had suffered so horribly, it's no wonder they would invent for themselves a strong and vengeful God, who would lead them, look after their interests, forgive their shortcomings, punish their enemies, and lead them to safety. I don't believe such a person as Moses ever existed, but I understand where he comes from, and it's a very human, sympathetic place. But if such a man did exist, and did the things Moses does in the Pentateuch, he would be no better than Hitler or Pol Pot or Stalin or any other mass-murdering dictator we could name.

Ditto for the Old Testament God. Why would anyone even want to believe that such a character were real? To think that the universe is run by such a psychopath is terrifying.

That's my piece on this particular point. Your turn, Woody!
Friday, December 19th, 2008 | 10:23 pm (UTC) - Re: Steve and Woody: A theological conversation continued
Anonymous
Woody said:

Thanks for adding this to your blog. Okay, I'll attempt to answer these paragraphs, although I don't know how much different my replies will be. Hopefully I can add something different than what I've already shared. So, here goes:

Steve said:

I totally agree with you that if the people of the United States had suffered as the Israelites had suffered, we would be raring for some payback when the opportunity came. But that would not justify us in committing genocide against our oppressors. You cite the American Revolution and the First and Second World Wars, but I don't think they are analogous to the campaigns the Israelites undertake with Moses in the Old Testament.

Woody said:

I don't know. We say that we wouldn't but look at Rwanda. Who would have ever thought? Now, given our status in the world and the human rights laws (which weren't in effect way back when), we probably would not do so.

Steve said:

The American cause in the Revolution was to win independence from Britain and acheive peaceful coexistence, not to wipe Britain off the map. The Israelites, led by Moses and under orders from God himself, were far more brutal than the Americans in the Revolution, or the Allies in the First and Second World Wars. The genocidal leader in World War II is now almost universally recognized as the enemy in WWII, even in (especially in) his former native land of Germany. Genocide is an evil act. Infanticide is an evil act. If the God of the Bible was truly as powerful as he insists, he surely could have found a way to get the Israelites to their promised land that didn't involve war and torture and the death and suffering of thousands of innocents.

Woody said:

I don't believe that Americans wanted peaceful co-existence with England. They wanted to be separated from England and the tyrannical King. And you're right, the Israelite conquests were more "brutal" in the sense that they killed women and children also. It didn't happen in all of their wars with their neighbors, but did happen with some as you have documented. I don't deny that. I just think that it was, at the time, a necessary thing to do.

The genocide of the Jewish people in the Holocaust could be considered a more analogous example for the genocide in the OT. However, there are some distinctions to be made. First, Hitler and the Third Reich performed human experiments that were both painful and dehumanizing. They also tortured their victims. They also starved them to death, worked them to death, raped them and did not give them an opportunity to fight.

The Israelites went to war against the Midianite men. They killed them. They didn't rape them or torture them or perform human experiments on them like they were animals. The Midianites had weapons. They simply lost. The non-virgin women were killed. They weren't raped or tortured. The virgin young women were spared and were married or became slaves of the Israelite men. And as the custom was, they were often treated as property.

The conquests of the Israelites were limited in scope and time. It was approximately from 1200 BC to 1000 BC that this conquest happened and after 1000 BC came the reign of King David. Out of the whole length of the volume of the Bible and its chronology, this is but a small part. That doesn't change that it happened, but given the rest of the Bible content, it's pretty small.

By the way, if you study the Bible, you see how mankind progresses from his state in Genesis to the advent of Christ and you see the different covenants and approach that God takes with mankind. It really explains a lot if you take the time to read it.

continued on next post...

Friday, December 19th, 2008 | 10:24 pm (UTC) - Re: Steve and Woody: A theological conversation continued
Anonymous
Continued...

Steve said:

There's another point I have to make, hopefully briefly. The 400 years of slavery and suffering by the Israelites would not excuse their later crimes, but it would definitely explain them. And, to return to the real world, it certainly explains where the myths of the Old Testament came from and why they were clung to so fervently. If the Israelites had suffered so horribly, it's no wonder they would invent for themselves a strong and vengeful God, who would lead them, look after their interests, forgive their shortcomings, punish their enemies, and lead them to safety. I don't believe such a person as Moses ever existed, but I understand where he comes from, and it's a very human, sympathetic place. But if such a man did exist, and did the things Moses does in the Pentateuch, he would be no better than Hitler or Pol Pot or Stalin or any other mass-murdering dictator we could name.

Woody said:

Oh my, that's a whole different conversation :) I think that perhaps this is the crux of the matter and is what leads us into different conclusions. Now, if we're being honest and open, I have to draw attention to the fact that you deny that such a person as Moses ever existed and neither did his God, yet you believe the stories of genocide. They are from the same book. While I admit that the Bible is written in many literary styles (too long to go into), it's pretty clear that this is meant to be a historical account and not just metaphor. It seems that you have to accept that Moses existed and so did the genocide, or that none existed, or that facts were miscontrued - in which case, we are left to wonder which ones - the genocide? the man Moses? Who's to say?

Steve said:

Ditto for the Old Testament God. Why would anyone even want to believe that such a character were real? To think that the universe is run by such a psychopath is terrifying.

That's my piece on this particular point. Your turn, Woody!

Woody said:

Well, you're a tough act to follow, but I did what I could and hopefully offered some new or different insights, while I admit that I probably repeated a lot of my answers.

If you study the Bible and theology all the way through you begin to see less of a picture of a psychopath, but a Creator who has a lot of expectations from the beings He created, the same beings that continually blaspheme Him, curse Him, fight against him and deny that He exists. Mankind has done it since the beginning. And God has done what He could to lure man back to Him, including offering His Son to bridge the gap between us.

I freely admit that I am not a scholar, never went to seminary and am not an expert on the material in question, just my own personal study. Therefore, my position is not authoritative and should not be treated as such or representative of any Christian denomination. This applies to all my responses.

Sincerely,

Woody
Saturday, December 20th, 2008 | 12:33 am (UTC) - Re: Steve and Woody: A theological conversation continued
Now, if we're being honest and open, I have to draw attention to the fact that you deny that such a person as Moses ever existed and neither did his God, yet you believe the stories of genocide.

Let me clarify. I don't believe that such a person as Moses ever existed, and I don't believe any of his varied adventures in the Old Testament ever took place in actual history. I don't think the Red Sea was ever parted, and I don't think a tribe called the Midianites were ever actually annihilated by the Israelites. While we're on the subject, I don't believe the Earth was created in six days, I don't think there ever was a Garden of Eden, and I don't believe there was a global flood as depicted in the story of Noah's Ark.

Sorry for the confusion, which is understandable given how much of our conversation has centered on the killing of the Midianites. My point isn't to suggest that such an event as the Midian genocide actually occurred, and ought to be condemned. Rather, I'm trying to point out that the act of murdering all the men and keeping all the virgin women for wives (since we disagree on whether or not to call it "rape") is not moral. It's one of the most immoral acts a human being could ever commit, I'd say. The fact that Moses is portrayed within the text of the Bible as a moral man, and that God is described as just, says something very troubling about the Bible's concept of morality.

If the stories of the Old Testament we've been discussing are factual, and if there really was a Moses and he really did the things he's said to have done (to say nothing of the horrific punishments inflicted on mankind by God himself), he was no better than the perpetrators of genocide in more recent human history who we all so rightly revile.

If, as I believe, the stories are religious myth, there is still the moral problem. The actions of Moses are not moral by any human reckoning. They are unjust and inexcusable. Therefore, Moses is no example of good morality. Since it considers Moses to be a moral and godly man (among many other reasons), I don't consider the Bible to be a good moral guide, either.

For someone who isn't a scholar or a theologian (neither am I, if you couldn't already tell), you do a fine job holding up your arguments, Woody. Your point about Moses and the Israelites not torturing or experimenting on their enemies as the Nazis did is an excellent one, and a tough one to answer. I'll only say that exterminating an entire race is evil enough for me, but apparently was not quite evil enough for Hitler. If I'm forced to admit that Moses was not quite as evil as the guy who conceived and conducted the Jewish holocaust, that's okay by me. I can live with that.
Saturday, December 20th, 2008 | 03:49 am (UTC) - Re: Steve and Woody: A theological conversation continued
Anonymous
(Woody again)
Hello again Steve.

It is clear that we have opposing views, which I believe, mainly stem from our beliefs (or lack thereof) in God and the accuracy of Scripture. And that's okay. I want to share something briefly, if you will indulge me. I do not preach and don't want to use your blog as a soapbox. If you feel that this is not appropriate, however, please feel free to delete.

I grew up a Christian and was one for 30 years, reading Scripture and attending church faithfully. One day I began to study the issue of hell. I didn't like what I saw. I felt that the Christian church had propagated a teaching which wasn't true at all. I left Christianity.

I began to study world religions and found a home in Buddhism. I took Buddhist vows and was given a new name. I practiced meditation and followed some strict guidelines - at least the 5 basic vows of a layperson.

I began to study the use of animals for food. I could no longer agree with consuming animals just to keep me alive. I became a vegetarian and changed the way I viewed the world. I denied that God existed, for how could He condone the sacrifice of animals in the OT? That was barbaric. I also had the issues with the killing in the OT of humans.

But then I encountered something which I could not deny, which changed my whole view of life and reality. I began to fight some very dark things and the only thing that helped was the religion in which I was brought up in. My Buddhist teachers and religion could not answer my questions. I came back to Christianity 2 years ago and now have a ministry to cult and ex-cult members.

I said all that to say this: Sometimes life throws things your way that you may not understand, ideas and people and situations that defy reason and logic. This is the great cosmic mystery. To see who we really are and what we believe and what drives us as human beings.

I haven't figured it all out myself. There are things that I might not ever understand in this life. As long as we are open to doubt and belief we are ever-searching and ever-learning. Whether or not you remain a skeptic or believer is immaterial. However, the journey is what matters.

We might soon exhaust this topic, but I hope that we can discuss the many other topics on your blog. So far, it's been a pleasure discussing these very important points you bring to the table. But, it's getting late in this neck of the woods, so I'll sign off for now.

Till next time...take care.

Woody
Saturday, December 20th, 2008 | 04:11 am (UTC) - Re: Steve and Woody: A theological conversation continued
Anonymous
By the way, thank you for your kind words. I think you do a wonderful job yourself of presenting your positions and supporting your views. While we fall on opposite sides of the fence, it is clear that you are a caring, level-headed and reasonable person. Thank you for hosting our conversations thus far here on your blog. That shows an openness to debate and critical thinking, something sorely lacking in many other places on the web.

Sincerely,

Woody
Saturday, December 20th, 2008 | 10:16 pm (UTC) - Re: Steve and Woody: A theological conversation continued
Yes indeed, we should keep talking about lots of other topics. I'd welcome your comments/criticisms/insights on anything I've written, Woody, because I find you to be an honest and reasonable guy who is interested in reaching out, not clubbing people over the head with an ideology. I admire that, and appreciate it.

I also appreciate you sharing your personal story, of how you went from your childhood faith to Buddhism and back again. Your religious beliefs have been of use to you, have comforted you and helped along your understanding of the world, and I would never presume to argue with that. They have also evidently not had any detrimental effect on your character, at least not that I've seen during our exchanges. I wish there were more religiously devout people like you, and like many other Christians and followers of other faiths who I know personally, out there in the media to speak for their faiths, rather than the loud-mouthed, narrow-minded bigots who pass for Christians on television and on the radio.

Since you shared your spiritual journey with me, let me share mine with you, and try to be quick about it.

I was raised by a mother who is the daughter of a born-again preacher, and a father whose religious beliefs line up more or less with Christianity, but who has never been particularly devout. Except for a few months when I was in the first grade, I never regularly attended church. But I considered myself a Christian. Mostly this was because I hadn't yet realized that there was a choice. Like a lot of Christians, I equated belief in God with my own religion, and figured that if you weren't a Christian, you were either an atheist or sadly misguided in some other way.

As a teenager I was fascinated by all sorts of religious and philosophical topics. I learned about the phenomenon of the Bible codes, the hidden messages within the text of the Torah that one host on the Trinity Broadcast Network declared were "the signature of God!" (Later, I learned that similar phenomena can be found, if you look, in virtually any sufficiently lengthy book, of any language, on any subject. Someone ran a code-search on Moby Dick and found "predictions" of the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations "hidden" within it.) I came for the first time to understand the fundamentalist doctrine which my maternal grandfather had been preaching much of his life. According to its dictate, how good of a person you were didn't matter. What really mattered was that you professed the correct creed, specifically that Jesus of Nazareth had been the Son of God, and that it was only through accepting his sacrificial death on the cross that you could ever attain salvation and enter into paradise after death. Failure to join this, the one correct religion out of the hundreds of thousands promulgated in all of human history, earned you a one-way ticket to Hell, eternal torture and damnation in the total absence of God.

Something about that struck me as unfair. I didn't think a loving God would be too into condemning people to everlasting torment simply for choosing the wrong faith during their relatively brief time on Earth. It turns out that a lot of other people, way smarter than me, had similar misgivings.

(I'm going on a lot longer than I thought I would, so I'll continue in the next comment.)
Saturday, December 20th, 2008 | 10:17 pm (UTC) - Re: Steve and Woody: A theological conversation continued
(Now, as I was saying . . .)

I returned to a love of science that had been with me in early childhood, when I asked my parents for a telescope one Christmas, and spent night after night gazing up at the stars and the Moon. The light from some of those stars began its journey to our eyes hundreds of thousands of years ago. The Hubble Space Telescope can detect and photograph the light from objects billions and billions of light-years distant; it can document stars and galaxies that almost certainly no longer exist, but whose light continues to travel across the universe. The universe, I was rediscovering, was a vast, wonderous, mysterious, beautiful place — more wonderous and beautiful, it seemed to me, than anything I read in the Bible, which was looking more and more like a collection of tribal myths and local histories that had very little of value to say to me. It was wrong about a great many things — how the Earth was created and how humanity originated and evolved, for one thing — so it seemed to me that, while it was undeniably an important and fascinating book, it certainly wasn't the final and unalterable word of God.

God, I figured, had nothing to do with it. And the more I looked at the world around me, the more I realized that God had nothing to do with it, either. I didn't become an atheist. To this day I believe that a God of some kind exists, though maybe it would be more honest to say I hope, rather than I believe. But I don't believe he, this God, takes any part in human affairs, or plays any other direct, supernatural role in the functioning of the universe. For one thing, such a belief isn't necessary — science has shown us that the world runs just fine without him. For another, there just doesn't seem to be any persuasive evidence that God has ever intervened. There are extraordinary events, amazing coincidences, things which we have no word for other than "miraculous," but for every seemingly impossible story of healing, revival, recovery, there are many more stories of tragedy and cruelty and suffering. When a school bus crashes and one child somehow survives, the natural reaction of some is to declare it a miracle, that God has preserved this precious life. But what about the others who died in the crash? Was God unable or unwilling to save them? Why spare one family the agony of losing a child, only to inflict it on dozens more in the same stroke? It makes no sense.

What does make sense, though, is the belief that God doesn't concern himself with us. He doesn't speak to us, except perhaps directly to our hearts and minds, through intuition or inspiration. He doesn't make appearances, he doesn't intervene to alter the natural unfolding of events, and he doesn't answer prayers. Maybe he's not even there at all, but I'm not quite to that point yet.

This may sound like I have a bleak view of the world, but I don't. Though I hate to put a label on myself, I guess I fit pretty well into the secular humanist category. For all the evil we've done, humanity has also done some pretty admirable things. We've created great art, amazing feats of engineering and exploration (landing on the Moon is a pretty big accomplishment, I'd say), and in a relatively short period of our recent history we've come up with ways of investigating and understanding our planet and the larger universe around it. All of this fills me with more wonder and awe and hope than any dogma of any religion I've ever encountered. Ask my girlfriend, I'm a pollyanna most of the time. It gets so I'm downright hard to be around.

And the Bible has its place, too. If we free it from the unfair demand that it be 100% factually true and inspired by God himself, if we regard it as a piece of literature, like Beowulf or The Odyssey, it has many rewards to offer. The King James translation has some incredibly beautiful writing, and some humane philosophy stuck in here and there between the bloodshed and fear-mongering.

(Would you believe I'm not done yet? More to follow . . .)
Saturday, December 20th, 2008 | 10:18 pm (UTC) - Re: Steve and Woody: A theological conversation continued
(And finally . . . whew! . . .)

One thing you and I agree on, Woody, is that the search for truth, to be any good at all, can never really be over. You reminded me of a quote I just read recently, from the German philosopher Gotthold Lessing, who wrote during the Enlightenment. In his Anti-Goeze, he writes

The true value of a man is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to the Truth. It is not possession of the Truth, but rather the pursuit of Truth by which he extends his powers and in which his ever-growing perfectibility is to be found. Possession makes one passive, indolent, and proud. If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left only the steady and diligent drive for Truth, albeit with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand.

Something tells me, despite our vast differences in belief, that if we were each offered the same choice, we'd both take the left hand, too.
Saturday, January 3rd, 2009 | 12:49 am (UTC)
Anonymous
Hey Steve!

Woody again here. Back from the dead (Christian humor)after the holidays, family and too much food.

Thank you for sharing your story with me. We all come into this life and work our way through it the best we can given the information we have. I honor your honest thoughts and experiences and see a person like me in many respects.

Later I want to look around the blog and see if there's anything we can discuss and have meaningful dialogue about. So, till then...

Peace...

Woody
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