What is forgiveness, anyway?

Forgive

I’ve been grappling with the nature of forgiveness in my personal life lately. You might, as a result, find this post to be much more personal than usual, but I hope you’ll bear with me.

Recently, a close friend let me down in a particularly damaging way. This wasn’t just a careless action on his part, but a deliberate one that he knew would have significant impact on me. Indeed, it left me reeling, confused and deeply hurt. I won’t go into details as I’m still processing what happened and I’m sure, in any case, that my friend would not want what he did broadcast to the world (or at least, the small number of people who read this blog!)

He has asked for my forgiveness. He has not said he is sorry for what he did, rather he has apologised for the effect it had on me, which is not the same thing. I’ve told him I can, and do, forgive him, but having done so, I realise I don’t really know, in practical terms, what forgiveness means. What does it entail? What does it feel like? What actions does it require on the part of the forgiver? Sixty+ years into life, twenty-five as a Christian, and I find I really don’t know. The bible, as I suggested last time, is of no help. For all its advocates blather on about how it, and the Christian faith generally, are all about forgiveness, it hasn’t anything substantial to say about how forgiveness actually ‘works’.

Does forgiveness mean I have to somehow forget what my friend has done? Popular songs seem to suggest that’s what it’s about; ‘let’s forgive and forget’; a time for forgiving and for forgetting’ and so on. But how do I do that? I can’t delete the part of my memory that knows what happened and seems determined to bring it into my conscious mind at every opportunity (usually in the middle of the night). I can suppress it to an extent, think of other things, make myself busy ‘to take my mind off things’, but that’s not really forgetting. I suppose I can resist the temptation to muster up a grudge but that, I think, would be for my benefit, not his.

Does forgiveness mean then that I allow things to continue as normal? I’m not sure that’s possible when I can’t now trust my friend. He could do the same thing again and I’m not prepared to leave myself open to that possibility. Forgiveness doesn’t, I’ve discovered, restore trust; but does this mean I’ve not really forgiven him? We could renegotiate our relationship, put it on a different footing perhaps, but wouldn’t such caution and readjusting also suggest I’ve not been able to forgive him?

Does forgiveness simply mean I won’t seek out some form of retribution or revenge? Possibly, but as I’m not inclined to do these things anyway – I’ve never believed that two wrongs can somehow make a right – I’m not sure I’d actually be (for)giving much with such a semblance of magnanimity. Perhaps, then, I might quietly let the friendship he and I once enjoyed drift quietly away into oblivion. I have, after all, to protect myself from the effect of his doing something similar in the future. I could let time take care of the problem, its passage allowing the pain, along with the friendship, to pass.

This is, in fact, the course I’m taking, and I’ve told my friend as much, but he doesn’t see this as the forgiveness I promised him. In truth, neither do I, but it’s the best I can do.

According to some parts of the bible (but not others), God forgives us our sins. He does this by magically covering them up with the blood of his sacrificed Son. It’s mumbo-jumbo, of course, but perhaps those who invented it had the same problems I have with forgiveness. In the end they realised that the only way they could ‘explain’ it was with wishy-washy hocus-pocus. It’s not much use in the real world though. Anybody out there got any better suggestions?

 

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Bible Blunders #568

Zechariah

Over Christmas I heard again the account in Luke, chapter 1, of Mary and Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancies. The story includes one of the most laughable blunders in the bible.

In what is clearly a re-write of the story in Genesis 17 about Abraham and Sarah, John the Baptist’s father-to-be, Zechariah, is told by an angel that his elderly wife will soon become pregnant. Zechariah, like Abraham, has his doubts and is immediately struck dumb because of his lack of his faith. When the child is born, Elizabeth announces he will be called ‘John’ as per the angel’s instructions. However, according to Luke 1.61-63 ‘the people’ (which people?) thought this a bad idea and said to Elizabeth:

“No one in your family has ever been named John.” So they motioned (‘made signs’ in the NIV) to Zechariah to find out what he wanted to name his son. Zechariah asked for a writing tablet.

Wait – they motioned to Zechariah? Why? He’s been struck dumb – he’s not deaf; he’s perfectly capable of hearing them. Then he asks for a writing tablet. He asks? He doesn’t ‘motion’ for it like the others have just done? It seems he can speak again suddenly – but in that case, why does he need the writing tablet?

Looks like Luke got a might confused here, forgot ol’ Zech had been rendered speechless and thought, for these two verses only, that he’d made him deaf.

And this, brethren, is the Inspired Word of God™.

 

On being free

chains

Commenter Rebecca responded at length recently to my post ‘Why God Could Not Possibly Have Created The Universe (pts 4 & 5)’. There was so much in her response, that I thought it best to reply to her in a full length post rather than with a brief comment:

Hi Rebecca,

I won’t be able to respond to all of your points as there are so many, but will attempt a few.

I’m glad you find your faith beneficial. You’ve obviously thought about the whole incarnation/sacrifice/reconciliation issue, but I wonder whether you’ve ever asked yourself what it is you need saving from and reconciled with? What is it that means you personally need to avail yourself of the sacrifice Jesus supposedly made (however you interpret that)? I guess evangelicals, of which you seem to say you are not one, would claim it’s because of sin; the alienation from God that our very existence seems to cause.

Is that really the case though? Isn’t it rather that ancient superstitious peoples needed some explanation for why life was so difficult, short and brutish? They reasoned that surely it couldn’t be the fault of the creator God, so his tendency to treat them badly must be entirely their fault. Consequently, they had to do something to appease this god, to make him smile upon them again as they felt he must once have done. They thought the way to do this was, variously, through sacrifice and/or righteous living, by murdering those they felt offended him the most, and through praise and supplication.

There is no getting away from the fact, however, that the primary way they sought to reconcile themselves with their deity was through blood sacrifice. The New Testament’s interpretation of the death of Jesus is expressed in just such terms:

In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our sins, according to the riches of His grace (Ephesians 1.7).

This is not just an evangelical perspective; it is the major theme of much of the New Testament.

I’d like to ask you, Rebecca: are you really so steeped in sin that you need to avail yourself of a bloody human sacrifice in order to be reconciled with God? I have to say it seems extremely unlikely.

I didn’t leave faith behind because of how repugnant this idea is, however. I experienced an epiphany while walking one day, after many years of thinking about such things, and realised with conviction that there was no god: no god to appease, be reconciled with or commune with. He simply didn’t and doesn’t exist (see here for why I think this is the case). Of course, there being no god means there’s no son of god either.

I then started living my life on the basis of the fact there is no god, and I have to tell you it became a whole lot better. I didn’t have the constant feeling I had to come up to some impossible standard; I didn’t feel guilt for the most trivial of ‘sins’; I no longer worried that not getting my beliefs quite right would result in the loss of my eternal life; I stopped worrying about eternal life because it was obvious there was no such thing; I stopped thinking hell and heaven were real; I started living in the here and now; I stopped thinking I had to respond to others’ needs by telling them about Jesus (and started relating to them as people); I no longer had to subjugate whatever intellect I have to force myself to believe things that were clearly nonsense; the self-loathing I felt about my sexuality began to slip away. I could be me, and what a massive relief that was. I think I became a better person as a result. I certainly became a happier one.

You say the bible contains many deep truths – perhaps – but it also includes much that is cruel spiteful, damaging and just plain wrong. I lost interest in sifting the wheat from the chaff because there was just too much chaff (a free biblical analogy for you there.)

The secrets of life, whatever they may be, Rebecca, are not in the bible, nor in any convoluted explanation of what Jesus stood for (he was just another failed apocalyptic preacher). They do not lie in Christianity or in any religion. Life is more than any of these ultimately dead things.

Thank you for writing. It can only be a good thing that you’re thinking about these issues. You will I’m sure find your way out into the light. I hope what I post here can help you with that.

Why God couldn’t possibly have created the universe (pt 2)

Where'sGod

More thoughts on why it is impossible that a God, much less the God of the bible, could have made everything.

2. The supernatural and immaterial cannot create the natural and material.

Let’s explore a little more of the nature of the God of the Christians. He is, they say, transcendent; ephemeral, intangible, invisible, ineffable, wholly spiritual. He is super-natural, existing on a plane outside the universe of matter, separate and removed from it and unlike any aspect of it. The bible implies as much and Christians have elaborated on these qualities throughout the millennia. The Christian God is everything, in fact, apart from physical matter (yes, those who claim to know all about this unknowable being assert he took on physical form as Jesus, but he’d yet to do that at the beginning of everything; 6000 years ago if you believe nutjobs like Ken Ham, 613.772 billion years if you accept the science.)

There is no incidence anywhere, no evidence that has ever existed ever, that demonstrates that something ephemeral, immaterial and super-natural is capable of creating the concrete, tangible and natural. To draw an analogy or two: music, which as heard is ephemeral and intangible, does not create the physical objects of the orchestra that play it. It does not look back as it vibrates through the air and conjure up the instruments from which it emanates.

Similarly, human thought, itself largely ephemeral and capable of imagining possibilities that don’t yet exist, does not of itself produce physical objects. However much you picture your ideal house in your mind, it will not produce the bricks and mortar without you taking action to realise them. This is always the case (and why prayer, spells and other wishful thinking are always ineffective); further action is required if what the human mind can imagine is to become a reality – some manipulation of the physical world. In all of our experience, in everything we know of reality, the transcendent cannot and does not produce anything material, ever. Music does not produce the orchestra. Thoughts do not construct the house; they must be translated into action, in the form of engagement with the physical world, for anything to materialise.

Two things follow: while the transcendent or spiritual cannot create anything in the real world without the corresponding physical activity, the reverse is not the case. Physical activity can and does produce the ephemeral. The instruments of the orchestra can produce music. The synapses of the brain can produce thought, love, empathy, desire. These do not exist, like other abstract concepts such as peace, hope and beauty, outside the physical human brain. In this reality, as opposed to that of the bible and the Creation Museum, the physical is always primary; it always comes first, the transcendent second. Never the other way round.

This, in fact, would appear to be a ‘law’ of the universe. As such, it is impossible a transcendent, supernatural being could have created the natural, material world. Applying this law, it can only be the case that the physical reality – or some aspect of it (guess what) – imagined the transcendent, without it having any real existence. No amount of physical activity has ever been able to produce it. If Christians therefore want to postulate a spiritual being as the first cause they need explain how the universal law that the physical always precedes the non-physical came to be overturned.

More to follow. Part one of this series is here.

 

 

Why God couldn’t possibly have created the universe (pt 1)

Preacher

I’m doing some thinking aloud here in an attempt to address the Christian claim that atheists are somehow compelled to believe the universe arose from nothing. Nothing can’t create something they say, so a creator is required – and what do you know? This creator turns out to be their very own pet god, YHWH, in one of his many incarnations. Definitely not Allah, Ra or any of the other hundreds of creator gods dreamed up by mankind through the millennia.

I’m not convinced atheists do claim that the universe can only have come from nothing. It’s an argument put into the mouths of atheists by some Christians who say, in effect, ‘if you don’t accept that our God made the universe then you have to believe it came from nothing.’ But it is the result of a false dichotomy (or false witness) because the position is not the only alternative to claim that a supernatural entity made everything. Lawrence Krauss, for example, demonstrates how something can arise from nothing and he and other scientists tell us that in any case there is no such thing as nothing – there’s always something, if ‘only’ at the quantum level.

The notion then, that in God’s absence the universe can only have come from nothing is a straw man, created by Christians desperate to diminish, dilute and dismiss scientifically viable alternative explanations.

It’s patently dishonest. (Christians being intellectually dishonest? Whoever heard of such a thing?) It’s dishonest because, in fact, it is Christians who believe the physical universe was created from nothing. I’m going to attempt to show you that they do and in the process dismantle their claims that their God was the one who magicked up everything from this nothing.

1. God too would have had to have create something from nothing.

Here’s the problem. God had nothing to go on. No raw materials with which to create the universe, and no raw materials from which to make the raw materials. There was only him and nothing. It is not unreasonable to ask, therefore, where the material from which he made the universe came from. The necessary ingredients for a universe – gravity, black holes, dark matter, dark energy, vast quantities of chemicals and what-have-you – are all physical phenomena, none of which existed before god allegedly made them. So, from what did he make them?

Perhaps he used parts of himself, in which case, he’s been depleted ever since, missing those bits of himself he used to make matter. Or maybe he turned part of himself into the physical universe so that he retained his integrity while integrating the universe into his very being – like a divine dream, say, or a tattoo.

The bible, however, doesn’t support either of these propositions. It makes clear that God created the earth and that which surrounds it (it has little concept of the universe as we now know it) as entities entirely separate from himself. His creation did not deplete him, nor was it a part of him (though he wasn’t, in the early days, averse to making guest appearances in it). Which bring us back to my original question; with what did he make it when there was only himself and nothing? Everything, Christians tells us, is made from something, so if God did not make the universe out of himself then he can only have made it from nothing. Everything there is, everything there has ever been – from gas clouds to planets, bugs to brains – God apparently produced from nothing.

Those who argue for this – and everyone who says God made everything is doing just that whether they realise it or not – does not advance our understanding of how the universe came into being one iota. All it does is introduce a sentient being into the equation, long before sentient beings existed. Moreover, the presence of such a being is superfluous, adding only unnecessary complication while explaining… absolutely nothing. Applying Occam’s razor we can just as easily take God out of the equation and be no worse off. There is a far greater probability that phenomena that do actually exist created the universe, not one that is mere conjecture.

 

Next time we will look at an empirical and logical impossibility that also means (a) God can’t have had anything ot do with it.

 

God approves of slavery

slavery

Over on his blog site, Biblical Musing, Don Camp is trying to justify why God appears to condone slavery. It’s not the first time Don has tried to defend the indefensible; he’s recently been arguing much the same thing on Debunking Christianity.

The fact the Old Testament appears to endorse the keeping of other human beings as slaves is a problem for Christians. It’s a problem compounded by the fact that Jesus in Luke 12.47-48 and the imposter-Paul, in Ephesians 6.5, both support the practice. How can it be that God approves, or at least raises no objection to it? Wouldn’t an omniscient, all-loving God have outlawed slavery, as he outlaws so much else, in one of his innumerable laws and commandments?

Instead, he provides instructions about how to keep and look after slaves; what to do, for example, when you flog one to within an inch of his life so that he later dies (Exodus 21.20-21) or when you deliberately blind your slave – she’s your property after all – or rape her (Exodus 21.26; Numbers 31.17-18).

Don’s answer is that, despite God involving himself in the minutiae of slave treatment, he knew it would be a waste of time telling his people slavery was wrong. Why? Because he took the trouble to tell them lying and stealing were wrong and yet they ignored him. So, hey, why should he bother telling them about slavery? They’d just ignore that too.

But the point is – disregarding the fact that not everyone steals and lies – ‘God’ did issue laws prohibiting stealing and lying (and eating shellfish, and wearing garments of mixed fabric). It seems it was important to him to tell his pet-tribe that these were wrong, even though he must have known many of their number, and many more subsequently, would ignore him.

What can we conclude from this? Only this: that God didn’t feel the same way about slavery as he did about lying and stealing, which is why he didn’t bother making even the same token effort for slavery.

Or, and much more likely: the tribes who wrote the laws didn’t think slavery was wrong. In fact, they thought it quite useful to have slaves. Given this utility, they were unlikely to have devised laws prohibiting their ownership. The enslaved themselves no doubt thought differently, but then they didn’t get to write the rules.

We don’t find a commandment prohibiting slavery in the bible because those who wrote it liked having slaves. For this reason too, we find all those inhumane instructions about keeping slaves and what should happen if you maim or kill them.

Of course God didn’t write these laws. People did. And they wrote them according to their understanding of what was moral, fair and legitimate within their own primitive milieu. Thus it was that slavery got a free pass.

How the bible gets almost everything wrong: volume 3

Paul4

So there we have it. The bible is historically, scientifically, medically, morally, and psychologically inaccurate. It is a muddle of contradiction and confusion, written by pre-scientific, bronze-age tribesmen and religious zealots who made guesses about how the world worked. In almost every respect they got it wrong.

So what does this mean for the central premise of the book, its claim that the Creator of the universe, the Father of mankind speaks through it? Why should we suppose that when it gets everything else wrong, it manages to get this right?

We shouldn’t. The bible’s knowledge of God comes from the same source as the rest of its information: the wild imaginings of men who knew no better. The bible itself tell us so, many times. By its own admission, it is a catalogue of dreams, visions and inner ‘revelations’. In the New Testament alone there are at least twenty ‘meaningful’ fantasies of this sort, including the entirety of its final book, the aptly named ‘Revelation of St John’. The bible comes from an era when dreams and other subjective internal experiences were widely regarded to have significance as messages – revelations – from the gods, not the routine and not-so-routine workings of the human mind we now know them to be. Every era, before the scientific, regarded them in this way.

So Paul interpreted his psychotic episodes, depicted as a disembodied voice and bright light in Acts but far more dreamlike and hallucinatory in Paul’s own descriptions, as experiences of the risen Jesus himself (1 Corinthians 9.1 & Galatians 1.11-12) and of heaven (2 Corinthians 12.1-4). From these he built up all of his fanciful ideas of ‘the Christ’, not one of them based on anything demonstrable or real. All of them mere notions in his head, notions that others were all to willing to accept as the words of a god. After all, wasn’t that how the Almighty always communicated with mere mortals?

Still today people surrender to these ‘revelations’; Paul’s theology built on out-of-body experiences, the disciples’ grief-induced visions, John’s hallucinogenic ‘bad trip’. These are the foundation of Christianity as we have it, providing all we know of God, Christ and salvation, and all of them without any basis in reality. Some believers even claim to have the same sort of ‘revelations’ themselves; God speaking to them, Christ bathing them in light, visions of Heaven. All of these, again, entirely within their heads and no more real than the occasional appearances of my long dead grandfather in my own dreams. However much Christians might insist on a rational basis for their beliefs, it is an inescapable fact that the faith has its origins in ancient people’s dreams and hallucinations. Rationalising after the fact doesn’t alter this.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in basing my life on others’ emotionally-induced inner visions, whether those of a Paul, or a Joseph Smith or a contemporary whack-job. I don’t want to learn about the world and life from people whose understanding and knowledge derive from their sub-conscious and hallucinatory fantasy life. Give me science any day, with its attempts to minimise subjective, human biases from its exploration of how things are. Give me its discoveries that have enhanced life, however imperfectly, in the here and now. Above all, give me honest rationality over sub-conscious imaginings and psychoses.

I have no interest in a god, or a saviour, constructed from other people’s dreams, visions or hallucinations, even, or especially, when they’re recorded in that most unreliable of sources, the bible.