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Welcome, Isten hozott, Dobrodosli


Right now, I feel challenged to speak out against a certain mindset that is very prevalent in some Christian circles.

Please note, I believe in the existence of things like higher law, interventionist and somewhat knowable God, absolute truth, the idea and existence of good and evil and salvation (even if the details of those are not the same as the popularly accepted ones). If you're far removed from these notions, the most you can get out of this article is seeing how believers struggle with the big questions (which can still be interesting).
On the other hand, if you are attracted to the ideas raised by religions, I'm convinced you'll enjoy this discourse.
I also want to put out into the open that although I write with an open mind, I also do it from a Biblical perpective as it was the things described in the Bible that have led me to the wonderful encounter and life changing experience with God.

Much of what I wrote here is dedicated to paint a picture of the underlying forces and convictions that will give us some surprising results at the end. At the end I’ll use those results to answer convincingly many popular falsehoods affecting Christians’ thinking. Before all that, I'll attempt a quick overview of the main question:

The problem

I am bothered by the reaction by christians to big, uncertain questions to do with theology. Mostly the ones of grave importance to fellow humans: Can we know who is saved? Can we know who is not? Should we hazard a guess? Anything we can do to alter these sort of outcomes at all? How certain should we be in our interpretation of the holy writ?

It might sound strange, but I'm not that interested in actual answers to these questions, more in people's attitudes to it.

Proverbs have clearly warned the proud: "Have you seen a man who thinks he is wise? You have more to hope from a madman than from him."
I'll be careful not to sink below the madmen. Even though I have strong convictions, I'll restrain myself to thinking about:

  1. How often we go wrong on things we know (let alone on things we only gleam about a little here and a little there) and

  2. How damaging assumptions can be to the faith (they are so strongly related that if you have the wrong assumptions, you have the wrong faith, if you assume for the wrong reason, you have faith for the wrong reasons, etc.)

These Christians (many of them “experienced” to some degree in the Hendrix “are you experienced” way) will say “give your life to Jesus and you’ll be saved. Die without this decision and you’ll go to hell. Forever”. I think we need to use an illustration of what is said in this statement that uses a situation we can all relate to.

An Illustration

Imagine a man driving at night between two suburbs, under the speed limit, alert, in a well-maintained car. A drunken atheist dressed in black staggers onto the road and into the path of his vehicle. The driver has no time to react and stops 30 metres after the sickening thud, the windscreen smashed and a lifeless body lying in the rear-view mirrors.

This person will most likely never completely forgive himself. Unreasonable thoughts like “what if I didn’t lock the wheels”, or “why didn’t I take a break from driving earlier” will keep him up at night. Some people will start drinking or get depressed after incident like this. Our love for the unknown fellow human is so anemic, the control over the situation almost non-existent, yet we are shattered when something like this happens.
We are talking about shortening someone's existence on earth by a few years. And the earthly existence isn't all that much to write home about. As Seneca said once to a grieving friend:

"What need is there to weep over parts of life?
The whole life calls for tears."

Yet, despite the finite damage, our conscience grieves immesurably.

Now let's change our perspective and try to think from an all powerful, all loving God’s position.
God knows this person intimately, loves him much more than we can love anybody, has perfect control over any situation and, most importantly, decides about our eternal fate.

Now ask yourself: Would this God tolerate an accident causing infinite damage (an eternal separation of this person from himself, eternal torment for both God and this person)?
I suggest (with any sane person): no, much less than any loving parent would support voluntarily their son or daughter being separated and made to suffer for the rest of their lives.

If this is the case for one person, how much stronger the need for a plan of salvation for billions of them? Would God set up a world where accidents decide billions of lives? Again, all sane ones in chorus:"No". Yet, many christians (otherwise quite sane people) believe that if they fail to do the right thing, their loved ones might end up in hell.

We should be clear on one thing: We are all walking around in pitch-black night dodging unlit cars. We are all accidents waiting to happen.
Are we seriously considering the thought that, possibly had this person lived for another day, and upon hearing someone’s testimony, accepted Jesus as Saviour, he would have gone to heaven, but this way he might go to hell? Even with all self-control I can muster I still call this thinking infantile.

My motivation

Why such an interest in this? I can think of two reasons:

-Because the contradiction between Christ’s mannerism and many of those that profess to following Christ is surprising, striking and throwing muck on things that are more precious to me than gold

-Because I believe it seriously affects the efficiency of our witnessing

But before confronting those views, let’s establish some vocabulary and see if we agree on that…

Vocabulary entry no. 1: Force feeding

For a long time, people struggled to produce enough to live on. Selling at the marketplace or exchanging produce with other goods was the easy part, making enough to make ends meet was very hard.

When it came to selling, the factors affecting the succes of a business were upfront. The “clean product-clean shop” mentality worked more so than today. If you kept good enough produce at good enough prices, in a clean shop with welcoming, honest service, you’d be fine. Things happened over time: if the benefits of the goods/quality of service exceeded that of the competing product, word will get out and the before mentioned clean shop would become a long lasting, solid and stable business.

The way society worked was analogous to a naturally aspirated car engine: what air the pistons draw in is considered to be what they need and they work with that. Lower revs, lower output but it is simple, low maintenance and the engine is long lasting.

When the industrial revolution finally spread its wings and slowly started to warm the planet with its greenhouse gases, a more immediate effect caused many businesses to falter: market saturation. It was no longer enough to make things and to make them well. Many could do that in quantities that would be more than enough for the population. The bottleneck has moved from production to sell. Those that were able to find new ways to sell prospered, and the others fell by the wayside.

New innovations appeared to facilitate this problem. It was no longer enough to wait for the customer in the shop; the company had to go out into the street, and soon enough, knock on the doors and move into our homes in search of new customers. Widespread advertisement became acceptable (think about it, how absurd is the idea of brand advertisement? Even more absurd is the advertising industry advertising advertisements-before you laugh, I’ve seen it happen). Motivational speeches became an art form and are needed to keep up with the pace.

Pace? What (and whose) pace? The word implies that there is this standard that we have to adhere to and we certainly behave that way. We certainly think that more and faster is better: We eat more. We consume more of a larger variety of products. We are still the same people, so what's changed? Why do we all need to be motivated over and above our natural impulses like hunger? Economic theory invented inflation and other devices to crank up and sustain economic indicators and in the end, consumption. As sell became hard sell, there was more and more pressure placed on every individual to consume more. This is similar to bolting a turbo charger to the car’s engine. It will push as much air into the cylinders as it can. Things speed up, the engine will rev higher and produce more power, but in the process more fuel is consumed, maintenance is higher and the whole thing falls apart a lot sooner.

Today we are born into this landscape of pressurised marketplaces and we just can’t imagine things radically different, but our life would seem as crazy as fascinating to a person born 250 years ago. After observing the way we live, this person of the past would inevitably ask: sure, we’re going a lot faster, but do we know where? Working harder to have a more relaxing holiday, which we will need to counter the stresses of the workplace? As Douglas Adams once wrote “Humans think they are a higher race because they’ve invented wheel and built New York. Dolphins think they are a higher race for exactly the same reasons”.

Lovers of a good philosophical argument will have a field day arguing if one system is better than the other and if so, which one. For this discourse, let us stop at simply making ourselves aware of this profound and radical change.

While the effects on our wellbeing is hard to gauge, the pronounced effect the “force fed” lifestyle is having on our intellectual landscape is harder to repudiate. This result-oriented, exponential growth requiring, forceful culture has moved over to the marketplace of ideas as well. It seems that we play hard, work hard and discuss hard. Opinions are polarised early on and the battle lines dividing the camps are set in stone. Under this passionate and unrelenting pressure from all lobby groups we choose sides earlier and earlier in our lives. There seems to be no use talking anyone over twenty with a view to change their minds about deep, subjective issues such as the Iraqi war, abortion or religion; seemingly only personal experiences or God’s actions will move people across the idea-divide nowadays. Even in areas that are not of the exclusive, “this or that” type we are forced to take position. A six-year-old girl is already self-conscious about her body image because she has an IDEA about how she should look.

A good illustration of the effects of force feeding on societies is the conversion rate to a particular faith in different societies. The chances of someone turning to Christianity in a traditionally Christian country are diminishing extraordinarily with age, whereas in areas new to Christianity, young and old will turn to the God of the bible in equal numbers. When you think about it, it is only natural and can be logically expected; but we need to be aware of it and the consequences it might have in areas we least expect it.

Vocabulary entry no. 2: The increasing cost of gaining marketshare

We seem to respond to all sorts of stimuli the set of which is very specific for any given person, whether talking material things or intellectual ideas. Let’s take a material example first and see how it would spread in different situations.

Imagine a new product that hits the markets with a minimal distribution network. I-pod mini, a new type of Internet connection, a new way to construct a hi-fi speaker or a new football team, whatever. It is simply there, not much marketing is done and not surprisingly, not much is sold. There will always be a small percentage who, when they stumble on it, the product immediately makes sense to them. They will be really passionate about it. They will seek it out, consume a lot of it at any price, and before long make a cult out of it. They turn into volunteer activists. They proselytise their friends and they’ll sound almost evangelistic. I have known perfectly reasonable people that turned zealots over such mundane objects as computer processors! What happened to them is that they faced a product or situation that they resonate with perfectly. Maybe it pulls them by providing results they’ve been starved of. Or it pushes them to do things they’ve never imagined. Or simply makes them feel better for supporting the underdog. Either way, it makes them whole, it turns them more into the person they want to be.

Now let’s imagine that the maker of this product gets bigger and bolder, and starts supporting its product with a marketing campaign. To use our terminology from the previous chapter, it will first turn on, then turn up and up the “force feeding” pressure. Ads appear. It gets a segment in a lifestyle show. The price is lowered or the product is changed to make it more appealing to greater masses. More and more people will be reached and more will buy, but every successive layer that is reached by higher pressure/lower price/more watering down will exhibit lower enthusiasm for the product. As soon as the pressure for this product lowers, or another competing product’s increases, the last converts are more likely to move away to another product. As the incentives increase, we get extra buyers but they are less committed. To keep market share, we have to keep up the force.

To me the consumption of ideas happens the same way. It seems to me that our objective self is as powerless to inhibit our heart in believing what it wants to believe as it is hopeless in influencing what the heart wants to have. Products apart from base necessities are really ideas represented by a material object. The decision of “am I buying it or not” is about how it relates to my life. Questions like “does it appear to add meaning to our life” often lie at the heart of our purchasing decisions. So, I believe this holds in the realm of ideas as much as for products.

What does it all mean when looking at the Christian world? The way God’s word is spread and accepted does not have to obey this rule of “increasing cost of market share”. God is bigger than some market force. There are times for revivals when people seemingly fall in love with God after seeing the smallest demonstration of God's character. But on the whole it does seem that the gospel is spread according to this rule of the markets, because when God isn't there, we resort to what is in our power. Either the pressure is ratcheted up or the message (price) is watered down, and we’re getting less and less committed followers.
In Greece everyone is a Christian, but most of them are really just nominal. USA also has a high percentage of christians. Looking at many of these christians reveals nothing special, and neither do the actions of those countries…we see human nature at its most usual. To have large market share, the idea had to be watered down or huge effort expended to convert such a large number, but are the converts worth it? Would you go to war with people that are there for the money, or ones that truly believe they’re defending something dear to them like their families or freedoms?

On the other hand, take a group of Jesus followers in Nepal or Russia say, as a counter-example. There you will see the clearest role models for Christians around the world as these people have picked this hard-to-get idea over all the others readily available to them, seemingly against all odds. On average they have either got the closest natural resonance or they are the clearest examples of God changing them to a different tune. And the words "different tune" nicely connect us to what is dicussed in the next chapter...

Vocabulary entry no. 3: Changes in natural resonances

Physics teaches us that there are some properties that just don’t change very easily. A material will have its specific weight, an object its natural resonance, no matter what. The Universe would not exist if one of its seventeen or so constants would decide it is time for a change. When scientists find a constant, they get excited and study it, because anything unchanging is so profound and absolutely worth exploring.

The flip side of this statement means that changing things are less important to study. If every time we are living in uncertain times, as a result of that people flock to the more fundamentalist branches of their religion, then that is unchanging, universally true and therefore very interesting but arguing whether it is the liberals or the fundamentalists that are correct is completely futile (if their religion is supposed to give profound and unchanging answers to life, then we can confidently state that neither branch is wholly correct, that they give answer that suit a certain era better than others, but that is all of any importance that we can deduce).

There is an innate side to humans that we don’t seem to pay the close attention to it deserves and instead concentrate on the flippy-floppy reactions resulting from from our character combining with circumstance. Just as the tuning fork will vibrate at a frequency of 440 Hz, so do we all have built-in reactions and propensities. Some people naturally write great music, selflessly tend to help others in need, are drawn to and excel in science or effortlessly grow beautiful gardens. Some of the stuff (and most of what is pleasurable to give) that comes out of us is hardwired. To paraphrase for a joke’s sake, we have talents and we are not afraid to use them. In seriousness, we are actually only happy when we do.

Have you ever practiced playing a musical piece on an instrument? If so, you probably experienced the frustration where, as you come up to a certain part, you keep making the same mistake. Start again, concentrate…rats, come the blasted section and you fingers wandered where they were not supposed to again. This is simply an illustration, but I believe some of our reactions in life are similar: seemingly random but consistent, outside our control, innate.

If our output is hardwired, I believe it is the same with the input that we allow in. For products, it might manifest in our purchasing decisions or enjoyment at consumption. Ideas we resonate with we will gladly accept, put into action, and speak to others about them. Our heart, left to its devices, it will not change and will respond to the same, very specific stimulus over our lifetime. But from time to time our taste seems to change, quite apart from the natural and familiar maturing process…and because it is so rare, it is very important to take notice when it does and what could have caused it.

I do believe that it is best to choose the original maker’s prescription. We are happy only when we do. Some people call it "realising the dream", or "listen to your heart" and in a clear, straightforward world it would be the normal course of one's life. However, things are more complicated than that. Just as eating the wrong food can feel good and make us want to have more of the same at the time of consumption, it can make us unwilling to consume the good stuff and reduce the quality of and take years off our lives. We have to look very carefully to distinguish between on one hand, artificial and destructive apetites (for heroin, or refined carbo-hydrates, say) and on the other, natural ones, stemming from our natural resonances (company of loved ones, dark leafy vegies) which give the personalised ultimate nourishment we really crave.
Because so many find the handy, "easy to pick up" but artificial apetite first and substitute that for the ultimate and goodness-giving, it is very important to have the minimal exposure necessary for any willing person to “latch” onto. For this reason it is important to realise that evangelists of all convictions are necessary-in a world of complexity such as ours there is a role for them to play. We don't like them not because they are unnecessary, but because they often do their job badly.
An example many are familiar with is the contrast between fast food and fresh/natural food. For many if there is no-one to expose them to the benefits of the latter, it would take longer to come around and change the diet or they may even die before realising the trap they've fallen into. The exposure to the right type of fresh-food evangelist can save a lot of hardship. By "right type" I mean someone to exhibit a deep faith in the good effects of eating well that is rooted in personal experience.
However, even if the advice is perfect, we have to face it that the natural response of many is not accepting our or God’s word at that time, or perhaps they have a way of accepting it in a different way. So, to return to the food-example, someone might have a different genetic make and is able to metabolise the bad stuff in fast food. Forcing the choice on someone like that will be counter productive because what we're saying doesn't correspond with his personal experience.

Making people feel guilty or scared is also counter productive. Sound sobvious, but how many realy knows this? When looking at history and all of its failed attempts to keep people under various thumbs, it appears not many. Fear, as controlling emotion, with its immediate effect is proving unresistable to many circles of power, including organised religion.
Yes, we can have more “conversions” by ratcheting up the force feeding, but at what cost? What is the point? We have to be sooo careful that the very idea of Christianity is not going to be the first to die a horrible death. Again.

If we believe that there is someone that made us, He (and I believe only He) can change these natural resonances and tune them into his frequency. Many Christians (including yours truly) will happily testify that a sudden change of outlook on life led them to God. In fact, the Bible describes and prescribes this conversion in many places and seemingly all true followers of Christ are aware of a personal change like that. Only God will be able to shed some light on this, but I suspect without God’s intervention people only know religion and not true faith and their actions are dangerously close to being void and useless at best, harmful at worst.

Vocabulary entry no. 4: Objective? Who are you calling objective?

In an objective world certain conditions would determine certain outcomes. If two fully objective people are at a certain same economic position, living and working at the same parts of the city, have same number of kids, etc. etc. (narrow it down as finely as you need to), they’d be driving similar cars of roughly a same type and value. This is just not happening (thank God!).

Now consider our ways of adopting ideas. Let’s take a large group of equally brilliant people, with similar background, age, etc. (again, take it as far as you want). They are all looking at the same world and same facts. Somehow, when faced with large and uncertain questions, such as the question of origins, they’ll sort into two camps, and one set will firmly believe in “frog to Prince” evolution, the other will not. Clearly, to come to such differing positions, their hearts (which prefer the consequences of one idea to the other) influence their mind rather than the other way around and the heart can be a very big place.
Robert Pirsig described this very well when realised how he could never talk to his friend John about motorcycle maintenance until he realised that motorcycle maintenance was just a surface scratch, the real issues got deeper and deeper until he faced questions so huge that he stopped trying to understand.

According to A (I'm quoting and I concur), "objectivity is just a mask one can hide behind –consciously or unconsciously - because he/she is afraid of coming out and stand up for his/her own subjectivity. One of the reasons for the need of being subjective, or rather, being brave enough to be subjective is the assertion and recognition of the world’s diversity – including ourselves. In a nutshell, I don’t believe in objectivity, even less in objective decisions. People who are trying to be objective are fakes without knowing it about themselves. I think, the most we can and should strive for is being fair – but not objective. Objects are objective, e.g. a watch, but not people."

To assume that we are objective will cause us to err in a way that will eat away at the heart of our thinking, slowly but surely, until we end up holding the most absurd positions of thought without realising it. Economist (who are among the worst offenders in this regard) will easily say "Overtime is good, 70 hour weeks are good, because people want them, and they wouldn't if it wasn't good". Until we, the readers of economic theory realise that people are affected by many ills that prevent them even from making an informed decision for themselves, let alone arrive at solutions affecting many of them together, and ditch the whole self serving technocracy that are the economist, we will struggle to come up with theories that actually help us.

Vocabulary entry no. 5: The incredible variety

I’m yet to meet someone who has not been impressed with this earth we’ve so mysteriously inherited. We are surrounded by an amazing variety of life forms. No two days are ever the same. Most probably no two snowflakes have the same structure.

What we tend to overlook is that we have this incredible variety in us as well. There are no two humans that are the same. Just as there are many physical features that clearly and uniquely identify us in the population of 6 billion, so our heart and minds bear unique signatures. We have to generalise as there are many uniting features, but we have to draw the line where we stop very carefully.

There are an amazing variety of positions people are being drawn to. The drawing power and the resilience of all sorts of (what looks to me) wacky faiths and views about our place in the world in say, educated Western circles (in which objectivity is generally very highly rated) constantly amaze me. It seems there are many eager buyers for many amazing products and ideas, the “business transaction” of being sold is just a matter of perfect match to the idea and a minimal exposure.

We seemed to have filled the “scale of all possible ideas” very densely indeed. It wold be an interesting experiment to line up all logical possibilities of a large question such as “origins of our world” or “justice in a social order” and see if different schools of thought have indeed covered it all. Indeed, sometimes I wonder whether there is anything someone out there DOESN’T believe?

We also smugly revel in our very different ideas and standards, no matter how contradictory and different to all others they are. Some Asian countries execute a person found to carry marihuana and imprison doers of homosexual acts. Muslim countries will prohibit alcohol and showing any part of the body, and the treatment of women can be dehumanising, even honour killings are silently accepted part of many cultures. I find these things just incredibly unhumane but I do keep in mind that to those Asian or muslim people, the western standards are just as abhorrent or strange. We simply have to realise that we’re all very proud of our standards and prepared to or too easily talked into killing someone not aligned with them.

Vocabulary entry no. 6: The incredible depth

So many times I've heard arguments, which as soon as they were uttered, I knew were just rubbish. A lot of times it is not hard to tell. My mechanism to deal with this is to ignore it, smile and nod to the person making the argument and hope that he'll go away.

Much more difficult to reconise an argument and much more damaging the failure where the premise is framed wrongly. This has led my philosopy down dead-end streets many times before, sometimes taking years to correct my position. I usually get caught up in it, take side, and try to convince many people of things I become ashamed of later. These are the situations that are important to learn to recognise early.

To kick start this learning, here are two examples:

Example a)
For many years, people held impassioned views on whether coffee was good or bad for your heart. Both camps held honest, impartial,insightful and intuitive views. They've listened to what their bodies were telling them. They've deduced their knowledge from what was happening around them first, then confirmed with scientific data. All fantastic ways of gathering knowledge, really can't do better than that, so how come that've ended up with diametrically opposing views?
Well, it turns out that about half the population carries a gene for fast metabolism of caffeine, and this population reduces the chances of heart attack if they drink coffe. The other half has genes for slow metabolism, and they increase the risk.

Example b)
When my wife was pregnant, the radiologist performing the ultrasound checkup has scared us witless by telling us that according to the formulas, our firstborn-to-be's weight is extremely low.
Zoe turned out to be super healthy and we've worked out, after much worry, that the tables the radiologist was referring to contains large numbers of huge polynesian babies reflecting their high percentage in the general population and on that chart, our puny caucasian backsides hardly register. Zoe was under the healthy range only because so many polynesian babies were so large that the average was nearly twice her weight.

The points to take from this are that in example a), without first learning about chemistry, constructing lab instruments, discovering genes, we would have never been able to solve this question. So with each giant in the fields of mathematics, physics, biology, IT, etc. we build higher building from which vantage point apparent contradictions can suddenly make sense. Until that, each side would have been pointlessly sticking to what they've felt is right and would have tried to convert the other camp to their position, only causing more grief to everyone involved.
In example b) the issues are plain to see. The doctor, the cream of us, with all those years of training and experience, could have easily understood the error of his comments without any specialised study in the interpretation of statistical data or such. So this example, instead of high buildings, makes me think of wide, flat suburbs, the houses of which each can hold information that can turn the case on its head-easily accesible to all but vast. The contrast between human limitations and the complexity of our world mean that there are so many factors to take in, that we always leave things out.

When we talk about issues involving spiritual truths, why do we assume that we have the complete understanding, the final revelation (a defining characteristic of many religious types) and hold our position as the exlusive one? In the Bible we are used to a revelation being expanded in later books, sometimes completely changing our conceptions about important doctrines, why not allow room for future expansions?
To tie example a) to natural resonances, I'd mention that the scientists involved in the coffee experiment mused that, when it comes to dietary science, we are leaving the "one size fits all" approach and moving into the era of personalised diets. I'd add to that that we also moving into the era of personalised faith and rightly so. It is in the holy book (Ecclestiastes) itself: "Everything is too complicated for men to understand". Are we so afraid of losing the position of importance if admit we don't know something for sure?

Vocabulary entry no. 7: The power behind the ongoing church

It does the Christians a world of good to realise what is behind their spiritual achievements.

By most estimates, there are around 800 million people in the world that had a personal, life changing Jesus-experience and as a result of that decided to follow the God described in the bible. This is a truly staggering number…but before anyone thinks about giving themselves a pat on the back, let me say this very quickly: Keep in mind that the “Kingdom of God”, as this group of people call themselves, is only here because of the sustaining power of God. We tend to flatter ourselves and think of ourselves as the dry wood that decided to throw itself into the fire and is keeping the flames going for a while longer. In fact, we’re wrong in two instances:

1.)The fact that we are in the fire is all due to God’s work without whom we would have never been able to find the fire in the first place.

2.)That we burn at all is a continuous miracle, as the wood that we imagine ourselves as is so waterlogged that it would quickly cool the fire. The church, the conversions, the witnessing, the selfless acts, the suffering for God’s sake is only happening because of God’s sustaining power. God is continuously breathing into the fire to keep it going.

Vocabulary entry no. 8: The tiny cross-section and large outlying areas

Some call people that take up very different positions or are into strange hobbies nonconformists or contrarians. They claim that if a person becomes a Buddhist monk in New York, he or she would be anything but that in Nepal. No doubt there are some that are like that. But there are many stories of people getting caught up in a foreign religion or alternative lifestyle and their happiness was finally achieved by relocating to live among like-minded people (to a Muslim country or a closed commune). I believe that for many, their hearts simply resonate to a different drum.

As we grow up, we go through a particular, amazing and very harmful transformation. We happily absorb the bits of our surrounding (the sights, smells, language, food, culture) for a while, but after that we lock down. There is a growing wall that separates people from understanding each other, like when water is receding from a beach, we form our private rock pools, and the raising barriers are harder to breach.

Let’s look at a Venn diagram familiar from math classes:

Two people from different cultural backgrounds meet, or are forced to live together. Let’s assume the green dots that paint the flatter oval are the elements that make up one person, say culture A, and the yellow belong to person B. The lime dots denote what happens to be common.

These dots or elements can be anything you can think of: prevalent physical and intellectual attributes, food, music, style of work, form of society, marital habits, crime, law…they can be celebrated, good things or things generally regarded as the underbelly of the culture, or somewhere in between. Some things between different cultures are obviously common, but anyone suffering from culture shock or homesickness will tell you, the differences are often underestimated.

There are two ways interactions can happen between the two sets.

An A reaction can keep happening when faced with another A. B will co-exist with B. But if we get A to talk over something with B, my suspicion is that over time A will disappear by either giving up or turning into B (humans are unable to keep up the giving side if the other keeps taking, our love is simply too shallow and limited for that). In other words, B could be viewed as a viral way (it turns the anything that comes into contact with into B).

The big question is: which is the prevalent dynamic in our world? The easiest way to discover the answer is simply to have a look at the "fruits", the end results, the quality in the distance (this method, by the way works a treat for any big question, like "is passion good?"). If cultural barriers were softening, evoking kinder reactions, it would indicate the first case to be the norm. However, discounting periodic variations, I'm finding borders, faultlines of cultures, nationalistic, racist fervour and all sorts of barriers like that just as intransigent as what transpires from the history books about times centuries, even millenia ago. Some say it is the political and economic powers that keep the divisions up, but to me it seems there are deeper roots to this force.

Another way to think about this is recognising that we all are demanding in some areas. These are the areas that matter to us, because we are good at them and we can see the relevance of this knowledge to our needs (needs tend to be universal, BTW). Obviously, the opposite is also true: if we're not good at something, we won't be as demanding in it.
This potentially makes B a much more prevalent way, as it makes very hard for me to recognise the areas different to mine the other person is putting his/her efforts into

Going simply from personal experiences also support this. I discern two forces at play:
Force 1) Knowing myself I realise that I don’t mind my rubbish so much, the bits that are not desirable in our circle, as much as what I consider the rubbish of the other circle. The reason to that is because we have learnt to deal with our failings, and our sensitivity to our failures has been fatigued and lowered to an extent that most times we don't even notice.
Force 2) On the other hand, we often don’t even know about the good bits in the foreign culture because we are not even aware of its existence and it is very hard to hunt those points down that you don’t know about. Even if I try to find the good in the new arena, chances are I'll enthuse about the wrong things, which will shortly become obvious even to me. Knowing about those good things means not just have a word for it, but completely digesting and being able to harness it well. It would be easy to observe how say alcohol wrecks the Aborignal community in Australia, but used well (which requires centuries of training), alcohol can be a blessing.
These two forces combined have caused as much grief to humankind throughout history as comfort to narrow-minded individuals.

I believe we can translate these two forces from the big picture involving interactions among races, cultures and nations to the small like families and even individual humans, albeit with weakening effects due to smaller differences.

So, let’s make sure that next time, when we speak of individuals that seem to do very different things, the emotional context of our discussion takes into account the possible shortcomings of our understanding. Perhaps this is partly why Jesus asked us to forgive so many times.

To finish this thought, let’s return to the rock pool picture: I believe there will be a time when a huge tide will pour over us and the little divisions will become meaningless. We will all add our little flavour but will only be concerned with the overall effect (at the moment such a strange thought, isn’t it?).

Vocabulary entry no. 9: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Some people, who perceive that they get the attention and recognition they need if they blend it, aim to please. As Alain De Botton humbly and honestly writes about himself: "In conversation, my priority was to be liked, rather than to speak the truth. A desire to please led me to laugh at modest jokes like a parent on the opening night of a school play. I did not publicly doubt ideas to which the majority was commited."
Others, who don't get their way with charm rebel, whether for just reasons or not. We have been controlled and conditioned for long enough to think that the rebel's way is simply unacceptable, but it comes from the same need for making a mark, being accepted. As R.L. Stevenson noted in his book "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", it is just a flipside of the same human being-and which side comes out is often completely outside one's controll.

Are we seriously proposing that God will judge a person on the basis of subservience or rebellion shown, when that behaviour was caused by circumstances outside one's control? I might be, say, suffering in this life for the sins of the cruel teacher who sent my life down a path of x/y/z on this earth, but God judgement will take all that into account and his opinion about me will not change because of this childhood trauma.

Anything that is organised on a large enough scale will reward the subservient model for the simple reason: If they didn't, they wouldn't exist. Undoubtedly, a military or the catholic church wouldn't function if there wasn't a central dogma that sets the direction and a strong central control of the individuals. But the fact that (as Socrates pointed out) that is all we see around us doesn't mean it is the right thing to do. What is more, if that is the only way an organisation can exist, it ceases to be a good/bad type question, it is simply a given.

But do we want these large institutions? At what cost? Maybe Jesus didn't want a church with a billion souls. Or countries whose heads control many millions of citizens. Maybe Jesus, even though the ultimate royalist in spiritual matters, was an anarchist when it came to wordly powers and principalities and that is He had to die.
I hope so, as that is my current position. For me, the cost of institutions is too high. If someone presents a divisive, unmovable position which I'm forced to accept, I'm more likely to rebel. That is bad news, as the pent up force exploding is equally likely to destroy both good and bad when finally released. This is wasted energy, human nature which we could harness, rather than suffer. All we'd have to do is to give up our right to order someone else around.

The summary of vocabulary entries

So, we've (hopefully) established that we are force fed in everything, but force-feeding is not the only or normal approach (1), that it carries a diminishing return (2), that we have natural resonances that we should discover and follow rather than fight against or gloss over(3), that we think we are objective but are not (4), that we are faced with an incredible breadth and depth of complexities (5,6), that it is God that is doing all that is "without shadows" in this world, not us (7), that we have huge problems dealing with our own inter-societal and inter-human differences (8), and that we can't recognise, let alone deal with the plasticity of our own character (9).

Let me humbly propose to give up any entrenched positions we have and let's re-examine our ideas.

A declaration of my viewpoint

I'm happy to prectice what I preach and re-evaluate my positions the same way I ask others to do. However, to say anything, one has to have a starting point. To write this article, which hopefully does say something, I had to start from my current platform. It is a much more productive exchange of ideas if these are known to the reader, so I'd rather have them in the open.
These are the solid footholds I've built on:

  1. I believe that there is still only the one way to gain unity with our Maker. In some cosmic way Jesus made the body of work that reconciles us with God. What I'm not saying is that we have to listen to a hard-hat Christian and believe to gain salvation-we have to leave room for God in this process.

  2. It is important to proclaim this one way to the Maker. Without the minimal exposure, people whose hearts have been made ready by God could not catch on to the life saving truths.

  3. God could have sent an angel to visit every chosen person to talk into being saved but He wants this to be a social effort and he has intentionally left a room for us in this process.

  4. God could have suppressed the hunger of the Jews in the desert, but decided to make them rely on him and feed them regularly with manna. Similarly He, through Jesus and the Holy Spirit has left room for His personal self in the process of feeding the believers with spiritual food today.

  5. God could have designed an earth where he has no “representation”, a life where all heavenly intervention happens after death. Instead, for reasons best known to him, he has decided to make contact with some and give a taste of things to come before they arrive. He decided to make an offer of “pre-enrollment” into the heavenly realm to people in this wordly realm.

I’m really an old-fashioned believer. I believe in the Bible (although I question my understanding of it continually), from the creation story onwards, because it led me to the personal experience I had with the Godhead and it paints a (historically, scientifically, spiritually) cohesive picture. But do you remember the reason for this article mentioned the opening? Using the ideas established up to this point, I’d like to outline this mindset (which is normally held by old fashioned believers like me) and my objection to it.

Grating attitudes from those that should know better

-We are saved because when we heard XYZ we believed. .

This is the same as saying "We naturally resonated to God’s plan and God will reward us with eternal life".
My main objection to this is that it makes it sound as if we did the work. I don’t believe we naturally resonated. Sin’s main activity is to distort reality. For instance, I believe we don’t walk around naked because the innocence required to make this naturally beautiful, open state of being is missing. In Marquez's "100 years of solitude" there is a girl called Remedios the Beauty, who among other strange things walks around naked and ends up ascending to heaven-I believe this is how the writer illustrated exactly the same point I'm making here (only much more beautifully).
The ability to resonate with God, the possibility of a union with our maker was destroyed by sin, and since the very beginning, like a genetic mutation, we inherit this disability. Without the supernatural effort, we all would be in parallel reality to God with no chance of ever making a contact.

God knows this, so in an amazing way he created a way to bridge this gap. Ever since then, God picks some of us from this tainted pool for reasons best known to him. I have had this "picked up from the crowd" experience, but as the saying goes, "God knows" I haven’t done anything to deserve this chance. I simply found myself one day changed and seeing, hearing and feeling different things.

No one knows how God picks these encounters. Maybe this happened to me because I was such a nice boy :) Fat chance. More likely I was picked because otherwise I would have wrecked too much havoc on other’s lives. Or maybe God is using me to illustrate his power in a “if I can do this with this guy, imagine what else I can do” way. Am I to enjoy eternal bliss because of that? While I do think being picked during my lifetime is an absolute indication of salvation, not being picked does definitely not mean eternal damnation.

-It is the name of Jesus, and only his name that will save you. If you haven’t subjected yourself to this name, you’re lost

This logic reminds me of a scene in an animated movie about Squarepants Spongebob. In that movie, an evil plankton stole the sea king’s crown. Because everyone believed the crown gave the king the power to order anything (plus it covered his bald spot, but that is beside the point now), the plankton suddenly had all the power.

The crown was the symbol of his power, sure, but in reality no man would choose to obey just anybody because they’re wearing the king’s crown, nor choose to disobey the king even if he isn’t wearing his crown. What matters is “who is the king”. I believe these Christians chose to focus on the symbol (the name, the form) rather than on the real person, who is Jesus. I believe Jesus will say, “I will look at the person, his heart and his actions, rather than the symbolism in the person’s life”.

Yes, there is only one way but I have the strong impression that the king deduces just as much from my actions while in a relative dark (all remember the children’s tales where these things happened?) as from the way I behave to him while knowing he is king. Of course, if one is aware of the identity of king and his glory and still refuses to acknowledge him or treats him with disdain, that person is a fool and unworthy of grace (and therefore hell awaits him) but that is not what this discourse is about. There is ample amount of effort that is going into scaring people, I really don't want to add to that.

-You do not naturally resonate the same way, therefore you are excluded from our club and will spend eternity in the most awful place.

We should be very, very careful when having these thoughts, even if we dress it up with nicer words. Some might have got all the calls they can ask for and refused to respond, but many people try their best in their blinded, bound state. The efforts of this latter group will be judged in that context, just as a coin in a collection box from the homeless man means more than millions of dollars from a billionaire. Jesus prayed for the people executing him, saying “for they know not what they do”. How stark the contrast between that example and those of us who are prepared to assign a person to eternal damnation for not jumping headfirst into the idea we present (and we present probably not all that well). What is worse, we also paint God unloving or unjust. We don’t notice because our hearts are so small compared to God’s, but we are hurting him.

We also have to keep in mind the amazing variety, the tendency to revel in our standards, the nonexistent ability to take in other cultures, the plasiticty of our characters. Think: how do those factors affect the accuracy of our judgement in this situation?

-We have to force-feed our beliefs or people, even people we love, might die

Would you let someone you love die? How much less likely that God would do that? Our love is feeble and very limited compared to God’s. He cares about even the types we don’t. He knows all people that have ever lived more intimately than we know ourselves.

Remember that force-feeding is a modern idea. Try the clean shop method and see how it works. Maybe the fruits will be fewer, but so much sweeter. Let’s not think big…the exponential growth, the "doubling our numbers every ten years" type thinking is very recent and reeks of human type shortcomings like greed and impatience. Remember that if every Christian were used by God to change two people to his way during his lifetime, everyone today would be a follower of our maker. The fact that it is not happening is, I believe, due to the fact that this is simply not God’s plan.

-You’re quite a nice fellow. I love you therefore I’ll get out of my comfort zone and tell you that there is this God, who is all love and is perfect, but if you refuse to believe what I say, or by some chance we’ve never met, you might go to hell

If we imagine that anything of any significance, especially eternal significance happens accidentally, we have just reduced God to a being of little power. That is not the God I know. We have to allow a mechanism by which God reaches those that we can (or just did) not. Maybe in the dying seconds…or when time ceases. Somehow, somewhere we will all be presented with a clear choice, supported with evidence that will make up for the shortcomings of how the idea was presented to us on earth in ways we can’t imagine now. Our salvation will depend on decisions, information delivered to an exacting standard in the light of every action we carried out during our lifetime so that in the billions of lives not one person will end shortchanged. Don’t imagine the precision of our judicial system or science experiments as that standard…that will pale into insignificance next to the light that makes sense of everything.

-It is no excuse to say “I’m an Amazonian Indian and I’ve never heard of Jesus”. God will judge everyone according to his or her conscience

Well, we have a logical problems here. We know it, we FEEL it that everyone falls short and is not up to the standard that God has set. We are quick to point out the damning side of the equation. But why are we so accepting of the one-sided dispensation of the saving grace stated in this attitude? The focus and acceptance on the “we’re in the boat, even if the whole world sinks” thinking and the relief shown among those who should know better stinks to literally high heaven, I’m sure.

If, on the other hand, the person who has never heard the salvation message does not suffer eternally because of it, if the chances of being covered by the saving grace are the same, why do we worry about our loved ones not “being saved” yet? Do we not trust God to carry out perfect justice with those that we love?

-You just have to believe what I’m saying

Well, one can’t. I don’t think we naturally resonate with THE truth, so God will always have to step in. If God is not there, and yet the person believes, what good is that to God? What does it prove? Either that person:

- would believe anything, and therefore it is of no value to God, or

- is born in a sinless, un-stained state capable of understanding God’s truth. This eliminates the need for God to save people and is against the teachings of the scriptures.

The End

Various leftover thoughts which may still or may not make it into the text

If God is omnipotent, perfect and is loving then this world can not be a “mincing machine”

We really like to flatter ourselves. Don’t like recorded voices, pictures…

The less we know about things, the simpler they look. Examples: immunisation, church, US government.

We are blissfully ignorant of reality even if it is all around us. The Kinsey report might have badly overestimated the activities of sexually marginalised, but it did accurately describe the variety of sexual behaviour of USA in the forties and that was enough to shock the population. How could they have been so out of touch with reality?

The drums to which we all resonate might become noise in the long term, just wear one out, or rob one of possibilities and fulfillment. But we have to recognise the attraction one feels when an idea is found that makes perfect sense and resonates with the soul.

People like things that work. They absolutely like things that work perfectly, whether materials object or an idea. What we have difficulty grasping is that different things work for different people, that we are wonderfully different and that this is a good thing because we have the potential to bring something to the great mix that others just couldn’t and we’re forced to work together, which is the way we were meant to work anyway.

The only explanation to the problem of people being lost anybody could give me revolved around the fact that God knows ahead if the person would respond if an invitation was made. This is true and satisfied my mind for a short while a long time ago. But the distribution of saved people can be hugely uneven and therefore I believe, unjust:

-Churches have never done a particularly good job of representing our Creator, so the witnessing was patchy at best, certainly of varying quality.

-Continents are cut off for millennia because of language, religious and other barriers. Even today, there are areas that are proving impenetrable to missionaries.

-The whole of humanity up to Jesus’ time has to be accounted somehow…

-Babies (unborn and newborn) need reconciliation (some theories about this are so full of holes, it is not funny).

We shouldn’t sweep this issue under the carpet as the “silence of the scripts”, but work and pray for a cohesive theory! The results could affect the way we present ourselves and our God to all and the effectiveness of the whole plan.