Tuesday, January 08, 2013

'Blessed rest until the resurrection' — the problem with Xn dualism, theodicy

An old college prof, from my small Christian college, died yesterday.

And, among the comments at a Facebook page for alumni was one asking that "God grant him blessed rest until the resurrection."

And, that exemplifies the problem with ontological dualism.

If, per the parable in Luke, long-ago known as "Lazarus and Dives," the faithful person has an immortal soul that already goes to heaven, he doesn't need wishes for blessed rest. And, to go hyper-Platonic, he doesn't need a physical body in the first place. An omniscient, omnipotent god could have made him a soul-only creature, whose primal ancestor wouldn't be tempted by forbidden fruit because he didn't have a body to be fed anyway.

OK, fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, shot down.

But, what about "liberal Christians"? What do you believe is happening when a person  like this dies?

If he or she has a soul enjoying bliss right now, then the same as above applies to you.

Even if that soul is in limbo, if it's alive in some way outside a physical body, it applies to you. So, both liberal and conservative Catholics don't get off with the purgatory answer.

If said soul exists but goes into "soul sleep," for fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, then why did Jesus tell such a non-literalistic parable? For liberal Christians, if Jesus really was divine in a western monotheistic tradition, why didn't he spread Buddha-type enlightenment about the reality of what happens at the moment of death?

Otherwise, to riff on Susan Jacoby's great op-ed column, it's arguable that atheists can offer MORE comfort at a graveside than liberal Christians, in some ways. Or at least more sympathy, possibly more empathy.  Or, at a minimum, less muddle and pretense.

That said, liberal Christians continue to have available rejecting one fork of the dilemma of theodicy — either god is not all good, or he's not all powerful. But, despite embracing things like a "ground of being" or saying that Jesus' "divinity" may not mean what it was  understood to mean 2,000 years ago, even the intellligentsia of liberal Christianity don't seem lined up to make this choice.

Paul was wrong in 1 Corinthians — a belief n a divinity for this life only can still have power. That's even if it's the power of positive psychology, wishful thinking or self-deception. But, it requires keeping up appearances, or masks, as to what comfort is offered beyond this life, if any. It's just that literalists and non-literalists wear different masks for different situations.

For liberal Christians, for the dailiness of life in this world, does it offer that much comfort for a religious leader to say, I really don't know why those bad things are happening in your life? Does it offer that much comfort when you try to tell yourself that?

At the same time, if you reject traditional ideas of god, whether because you recognize problems with the "problem of evil," i.e., that a god can't be both all-good and all-powerful unless you want to put your own mind inside a permanently black box, does it really offer that much comfort for a life beyond this one? Are you able to offset that relative lack with the degree of comfort a god of less-than-all offers this life?

Or are you able to detach from such questions? And, if so, how do you square that with Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead in general, even if you reject a bodily physical resurrection?

You see, this is all part of what I went through on my journey from conservative Christian divinity student to secularist. In many ways, it was a psychological and emotional decision, after wrestling in those areas; it was by no means just an intellectual one.

But, just as I realized liberal Christianity had to use what Dan Dennett calls "skyhooks" to defend what in the bible it thought worthy of belief and worthy of semi-literal understanding, it had to do the same with questions of the justice of god, of theodicy. (Ditto, if you will, for liberal Judaism.)

And, so, in the face of a Newtown mass shooting, let alone if something even close to that happened in my life (and enough happened in my life at pre-adult level), I couldn't "stop" at say, the United Church of Christ, or even Unitarianism, as I left conservative Lutheranism.

If you'll click the "atheism" tag, you'll see in this blog a series of posts that go into more detail about that journey.

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