The Age of Reason; Justice

I think often of Thomas Paine. Don’t we all? Consider this quote from The Age of Reason, his great humanist treatise on religion which often gets overlooked in favor of Common Sense.

If I owe a person money, and cannot pay him, and he threatens to put me in prison, another person can take the debt upon himself, and pay it for me. But if I have committed a crime, every circumstance of the case is changed. Moral justice cannot take the innocent for the guilty even if the innocent would offer itself. To suppose justice to do this, is to destroy the principle of its existence, which is the thing itself. It is then no longer justice. It is indiscriminate revenge.

Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

The point is that, if Jesus “died for our sins,” then the idea of justice is meaningless. We must be held accountable for our crimes; if we simply substitute some other avatar in for us, we’ve escaped justice. If Jesus is simply inserted between us and a just resolution to our sins, then we’ve avoided the repercussions of those actions. If Jesus has protected us from all consequences then there isn’t any way justice can operate meaningfully.

This was, of course, part of his radical message. The kingdom of heaven supersedes this one, and justice is doled out on a cosmic scale. Even still, if the sacrifice of Jesus truly absolves us of sins in this life and the next, we’re faced with a situation where justice has no meaning, since evil deeds have no consequence.

Our modern justice system recognizes this. Sure, someone might pay “damages” for an injury committed, but this is meant as restitution for real costs incurred as a result of the crime, not necessarily as a replacement for justice. Of course, there is also a long history of the guilty being able to pay their way out of their just rewards by way of expensive lawyers or the bail system, which is an entirely different problem. Ultimately, though, we punish crimes with jail time or some other loss of rights, which no other person can serve on my behalf. We wouldn’t imprison a person on someone else’s behalf because we “cannot take the innocent for the guilty.”

So why does it work for Jesus?

Do Biblical contradictions make homosexuality ethical?

I was pulling up the old Biblical gem about rabbits chewing cud the other day and my search resulted in several pages defending Biblical literalism and “disproving” the error. The argument broadly goes that, although the Bible says unequivocally that rabbits chew cud, and although rabbits are not ruminants, that rabbits do re-digest their food through a process called cecotrophy. The word which we translate as “chew the cud” today would, when the document was written, have been meant to encompass a larger group of activities, and so although the rabbit doesn’t chew cud by our classification today, rabbits can be said to fall under the qualifications of the original term used.


This is obviously quite a stretch, but it is this statement, shared by many pages making a similar argument, which really jumps out at me:

Simply stated, it is not reasonable to accuse a 3500-year-old document of error because it does not adhere to a modern man-made classification system.

Tommy Mitchell

We can extrapolate further; the condemnations against same-sex relationships and gender fluidity rely on a classification system 3,500 years old. Our current understanding of these things is significantly removed from the way the words are used in the Bible. Thus, just as the Bible is not in error regarding rabbits, the Bible also cannot be understood to make any statement about our modern conception of LGBTQIA rights.

You’d all agree, right fundamentalists and literalists?

Is religious art any good?

The philosophy of art is called aesthetics, and like most philosophy in general people don’t think about it too much. When contemplating art, people either like it or they don’t. For most, art is, like porn, something where “I’ll know it when I see it.”

There’s lots of art in church. The buildings are usually very thoughtfully architected, sometimes in very traditional styles and sometimes in very daring avant-garde looks. There is lots of visual art in most churches, from icons to mosaics or sculpture and tapestry. Of course, music has always played a huge role in religious ceremony, and liturgical dance is highlighted in many traditions. There are often religious plays and writing and storytelling is a large part of the oral tradition. Even the gems crusting a chalice or the ornamentation on a gold cross are artistic.

Is that stuff good? Does being rooted in an epic, enduring mythological tradition make it more weighty? And most important of all, does it make it bad art if the theology in which its creation was based is totally false?

To answer the question, we first have to have a general idea of what makes good art in the first place. Instead of delving into generations of philosophers, we should probably just consider the everyday metrics by which most people judge art: do I like this? People generally think art is good when they enjoy it. Of course “like” can mean lots of things: maybe it delights you or makes you laugh, maybe it entertains you, or maybe you like it because it is challenging or thought-provoking. Maybe you like it because it causes an emotional response in you, even if that emotional response is sadness or anger. Most importantly, we must recognize that personal enjoyment is subjective by nature and probably based a great deal on cultural trends and personal history; we may not like art from other cultures simply because it is foreign, but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad art.

Of course, it is possible to recognize art and even beauty in things you don’t particularly like. For instance, I really do not enjoy the artfully crafted still-life paintings of the 17th century Dutch. Vermeer is not fer mee! But that doesn’t mean that I can’t recognize the technical skill involved with creating them and with the possibility that others may find them enjoyable.

So then art is not just about enjoyment and not just about technical facility, but about some combination. Then of course, there is a lot of art that I generally enjoy and in which I can sense great technical ability, but which fails somehow to elevate to “great Art,” whatever that means. For instance, there are a lot of Broadway musicals which I very much enjoy and see great technical skill involved, but which aren’t really transcendent in the way of, say, a classic play. Or I can recognize the mass produced art from Pier One Imports as something that, while well made and enjoyable enough to put on my wall, fails to arise to the level of a great artist.

One thing that philosophers seem to agree on in the field of aesthetics is that there really isn’t one good answer to what art ‘is’ and what makes it ‘good.’ But there seems to be some combination of these three things at play: it is something created by a craftsperson which we experience through our senses, it may evoke some emotional response in us, and it may cause an intellectual response of reflective contemplation about the piece itself or something larger. In the best cases, these three elements combine to create a truly transcendent or sublime experience, but even just one of these elements could be enough to appreciate a piece of art as “good.”

An important benchmark that I use when I think about art is how the piece of art enriches my understanding of the universe in its representation or abstraction of it. For me, art is truly elevated beyond simply entertaining or enjoyable when it tells me something insightful about the world it depicts. Perhaps that’s why I don’t much care for still-life, because the technical goal in that style of painting is a practically photo-realistic portrayal of the most banal, which I find neither delightful nor insightful. Its also perhaps why I like a lot of abstract and non-representational art which others find confusing or stupid: in keeping with the Dutch theme, I love the work of Piet Mondrian, known for his famous squares of primary colors bounded by black lines on white canvas. His work allowed me to consider the basic tools of all painting, distilled down to their most basic constituent parts, and in turn influenced how I view all other painting. Some might see his compositions as stupid or simple, but I find them truly transcendent.

Art with religious themes or created in religious contexts can be judged in the same way as secular art. Sometimes we have a full experience with it or sometimes it doesn’t appeal to us, even if we recognize it as being otherwise “good.” But what does a piece of art tell us if the intention of the artist is to point us towards a belief about the world that we know is theologically bankrupt? Even if the technical craft is good and are moved by the piece, if it is meant to make us contemplate a God we know doesn’t exist then how can we judge it as good? Are the Pieta and The Messiah and The Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris all bad art?

It has always seemed to me that great artists’ contributions to religious life betray their true beliefs. This isn’t to say that Michaelangelo or Handel didn’t believe in God, in fact their conception was probably as literal as we expect most people from their eras to be. But the god their work points to isn’t just the literal white-haired guy on the cloud. There’s a grandness, a sense of universality, an all-encompassing vision of the breadth of the universe that makes this type of religious art say much more than just the literal, old-fashioned qualities of God. It’s why that God is such a small part of the ceiling of the Sistine chapel- that definition of God is too small to encompass Michaelangelo’s huge concept of the divine.

Not all art presented in the religious space shares the same theological conclusions as the institution presenting it. In fact, I think most of the best religious artists create art that far outpaces our churches’ limited theological teachings about the divine. That’s the best part about religious art: the subject is by definition the most sacred, most closely held, most magnificent concept of the world by the artist. We may at times be let down by what the artist reveals to us, but I find that most of that type of art falls by the wayside eventually anyway. The enduring classics all seem to have a kernel of the universal in their concept of God, and that’s what makes them good both in or out of church.

Why does God’s plan involve so much suffering for me?

If there’s one thing that really soured me against traditional theology, it was religion’s inability to account for bad things in the world. This is called theodicy, and it’s a question that has plagued theologists since the early days of the Christian church. There’s lots of ways to formulate both the question and the answer depending on how you conceptualize the distinct elements, but here are some of the ways people generally phrase the question today:

First, if God is all-powerful, all-knowing, always available, and totally Good in every way (to the pedantic sesquipedalian: omni-powerful, omniscient, omnipresent, and omni-benvelolent), then how can evil and suffering exist? If He’s good, then he would extinguish the bad, but if he can’t then he isn’t all-powerful. But if he’s allowing it then he must not be all-good. Or if he doesn’t know its happening then he isn’t all-knowing. It is a logical paradox similar to the old thought experiment: “can God microwave a burrito so hot that He can’t eat it.”

A lot of people would say that God is all of these omni-things, but that evil is a corruption in the perfect world God created. It happened because of Adam and Eve and continues to exist because of humans’ free-will. God has given us a method of salvation through Jesus Christ, which is a demonstration of his goodness. This idea of evil as corruption of God’s perfect world, something that God didn’t create, is generally attributed to Augustine but has had many iterations throughout time. Today, it might be simply thought of as, “humans make evil.”

Another answer is one by a philosopher called Irenaeus. His answer was that God must have created everything, evil included, but that this was a way in which we could develop our moral character. Humans would need free-will in order to choose good, and they would need an evil option available to choose from, otherwise we might never know if we were moral or just following a prescribed path. Part of this thinking is that God can only create perfectly because God is perfect, so this world must be perfect or at least the best-possible-world. It also means that the trials we face are part of the natural plan God has for us, a plan which involves us truly having a moral choice. So yes, in this idea “God made evil,” but it was a necessary component of the world He planned to allow us to achieve our moral development.

Both the Augustinian and Irenaean ideas are conflated in a lot of casual believers’ mind, which may or may not be that important. Definitely, we hear a lot of believers talk about “God’s plan,” and the basis of the theology is rooted in this second-century idea: that God created a world in which we could choose good or evil. For many, whether God created the evil option or not isn’t that important: maybe God is so perfect that He can’t introduce evil into his perfect creation, or perhaps he created everything including the evil things as part of one perfect whole. Ultimately, there is evil, we’re able to choose it, and this choice represents our sense of morality. Theodicy is not a defense as much as it is a justification; is there a reasonable way in which evil can exist in God’s creation? Both versions of the answer prescribe the same moral response.

The problem is that, no matter the justification, it seems so cruel. If the suffering and evil in the world is a result of humans’ corruption of God’s perfect plan, then why shouldn’t God save us? Of course the answer is that He did through the sacrifice of his son, but why can’t that salvation have a more direct effect on our daily lives? Like, why must believers still experience sickness and poverty, natural disasters and accidents, the loss of loved ones or the lack of physical basic needs? If we were really saved, why should we only reap the benefits in an afterlife about which we have no information? If the real life benefit of belief is so powerful, why can’t it save me from the real things I’m dealing with right now?

Of course, if this is all some sort of moral trial it makes sense that it might really be this hard. But why is God so malevolent to create the circumstances of a trial in which the suffering is so great? Does this all-powerful being really require such grave proof as, say, a killed child or a terminal medical diagnosis to develop the moral character which is His plan? Why does the path for others seem so low-impact by comparison? How can this be the most perfect world possible when I can so clearly imagine little ways in which it could be immeasurably better? How can this be the best possible world when I can do things to make it so much better, even things that would be generally seen as immoral?

Of course, I’ve been equivocating “evil” and “suffering,” which the church has always been careful to extricate. Just think of those self-flagalating monks; suffering can be for the greater glory of God! That’s easy to conceptualize and hard to live; its easy to think that illness is a trial or test of faith, but when you’re actually gravely sick with no hope, its much harder to look God in the face and know He wanted this for you. Again, that’s all part of the trial, in theory! But how Stockholm-Syndrome to be forced to worship and praise the same God that’s asking you to suffer so greatly.

Theodicy isn’t a proof of the existence of God of course, but the lack of compelling answers does make for a proof against the conception of God it entails.

Are atheists on a faith journey?

Atheists really bristle at the idea that they might be considered “just another faith.” They are adamant that atheism represents the neutral position, that no-belief should be considered the default, and that theism should be the outlier position. The words themselves aren’t helpful for this, as the a- in a-theism implies a lack of something that we assume should be there. Like in court, theists have the burden of proof.

Progressive churches frequently justify accepting people from a variety of theological backgrounds by proudly, if vaguely, affirming that they accept you “no matter where you are on your faith journey.” This has always made me uncomfortable coming from clergy, I suppose because its unclear if the clergy person is speaking from their own sense of compassion and acceptance or from the chair as a representative of the dogmatic theology of their organization.

A journey implies a starting point and a destination. The starting point, presumably, is where ever you are, while the destination is presumably where ever the ideal follower of that religion should be. The “journey,” then, becomes a failing; if you’re still on the journey then you haven’t arrived at the ultimate truth the religion has on offer. Like, if you’re on a “faith journey” to Catholicism, for instance, then you’re struggling to accept the teachings of the Catholic institution, until you arrive and you’re a full-fledged Catholic.

Of course, a lot of believers don’t use the term this way at all! They use the idea of a journey to indicate that we’re all in different places as regards belief, and it doesn’t matter. “We accept you, regardless of where you are on your faith journey” means “we accept you no matter what you believe.” It is beautiful and ecumenical and… problematic!

First of all, it’s not how journeys work. You don’t set out on a journey without a destination. A journey without a destination is called wandering. The journey implies an arrival, even if we never make it, which implies something we know we’re striving for, even if we can’t articulate what that thing is yet.

It might be that clergy use this “journey” turn of phrase with the understanding that we don’t yet know the destination. It’s the Meno 80D problem: how do you look for something when you don’t even know what you’re looking for? If we’re on a journey towards truth, how do we know what we’re looking for in the first place? Even if we found it, would we recognize it?

If this is the sense that we understand the “journey” analogy, then it becomes clear that the clergy’s answer is no more valid than the congregant’s. Even if the clergy implies that the hopeful destination of the faith journey is the stated beliefs of the church, the uncertainty of that arrival means that they’re equally supportive of looking at other answers. This removes a value judgement from the journey; we’re still working towards a destination, but since we can’t be sure what that destination is, there’s no right or wrong path for that journey to take.

Maybe clergy do believe that individually, but when speaking as the representative of an organization with an inflexible theology they inevitably appear to be implying the “destination” is the church they represent. There’s not really an easy way for them to say, “my journey led me to the beliefs of this church, but you don’t have to believe that,” since the institution of the church doesn’t allow for diversity of opinion. Even a welcoming and ecumenical church inadvertently expresses its bias.

Unless the church doesn’t have a monolithic, absolutist, single theological position. If the theological position of the church is vague, then the profession of any single clergy member can’t be taken as representative of the entire institution. If the stated position of the church at large is open, then the destination of the faith journey within that church is open. When we can’t pinpoint the desired destination, we can’t judge the value of any given person’s relation to that end.

Of course, there aren’t many churches that are so vague in their theological positions. Some are adopting, more and more, an openness to specifics, like the many churches which don’t take positions on individual issues of faith. In the United States churches are expressly forbidden from making political pronouncements, and this variance of political opinion is just one of many fields in which churches can encourage diversity of thought and action.

To be truly non-judgemental about someone’s faith journey, though, the church would have to essentially abandon any absolute pronouncement of theology. The Unitarian Universalists are a great example of this! When a UU says “we want you part of this group regardless of where you are on your faith journey,” you know they mean it in the least judgmental way, because there’s no indication of where that journey is supposed to lead. Should all churches become like this? Maybe! If they want to truly include people on all of life’s many journeys in a non-judgmental way.