Sunday, March 26, 2006
Discussion of predestination usually involves consideration of whether God is omniscient, or eternal or atemporal (out of the flow of time in our universe). In terms of these ideas, God may see the past, present and future, so that God effectively knows the future. If God in some sense knows ahead of time what will happen, then events in the universe are effectively predetermined from God's point of view. This is not predestination in itself (although it does involve determinism). Predestination implies that God has something to do with determining ahead of time, what the destiny of creatures will be.
Judaism may accept the possibility that God is atemporal; some forms of Jewish theology teach this virtually as a principle of faith, while other forms of Judaism do not. Jews may use the term omniscience, or preordination as a corollary of omniscience, but normally reject the idea of predestination outright, as a completely foreign idea that has no place in their religion.
Islam traditionally has strong views of predestination similar to some found in Christianity. In Islam, Allah both knows and ordains whatever comes to pass. Muslims believe that God is literally atemporal, eternal and omniscient at the same time.
In philosophy, the relation between foreknowledge and predestination is a central part of Newcomb's paradox.
Therefore, I think the only religion (from the group above) that gets predestination correctly is the Jewish one.
Why this topic? Because recently I had to listen to a Christian sermon that I presume concentrated everything I don't like and think it's wrong with much of the core ideas in Christian theology (or philosophy). I'm going to blog on it informally, even though it's not the kind of topic that really yields to being articulated well informally, but it would take too much work otherwise.
The sermon started with God's omnipotence and creation's predestination. This to me is perhaps the most central core idea in Christianity. Cantanima recently had a post about the question of God's omnipotence confronted against barbaric events in the world. Several years ago I came across the same question developped in a play, it's a confrontational dialogue between an atheist Jew and a religious one, and they debate the question of how could have God "allowed" the Holocaust to happen, because that is the only explanation possible for people who believe in an omnipotent God. God willed it. And given how monstrous and barbaric it was, how could a good God inflict and watch all the genocide without interfering, not only just any people, but more ignominiously, his "own, chosen" people? What unimaginable purpose could that have? (getting side-tracked here, but most of these religions all have this "chosen" people idea, that is, our group is better than your group or every other group which reminds me of that putrid little highschool clique mentality)
For anyone who wants to examine the omnipotence problem rationally, it is obvious right off the bat that it is impossible to rationally reconcile the idea that there is a supra-being that has omni-control (that is, a god who controls everything about everything) AND that humans have free will, all simultaneously. Either you are controlled or you are not. In a physical metaphor, either it's gravity that pulls a planet or it's some invisible god that does it. These two ideas: being a controlled puppet and having free choice, both at the same time, are antithetical. Therefore, lots of people came up with all kinds of zany arguments to try to reconcile them, in order not to have their whole religious belief system fall apart on them. (Look up the history of theological/philosophical debates in Christianity for how the famous guys debated the issue)
Whenever I see a huge, mass display of irrational belief, my first question is: what psychological/emotional needs does this belief act on? Why do so many people have the psychological and emotional need for it? Usually the answers to these two questions yield some interesting and insightful answers.
My first observation is that the psychological need for a belief in an omnipotent god recurrs very often in human societies. Second observation, it's not just a trivial psychological need, it occurs in very profound ways. Without much reflection, what I see is that this belief brings comfort to a lot of different types of anxiety that people experience, which can have both useful and harmful consequences. For example, if a person is experiencing hardship, the more they build up their emotional resources and defenses to deal with hardship, the better they will be able to do it. Sometimes, being able to distance oneself from things that are forms of aggression towards our selves can be a valid resource in a distressing situation. Other times, it just amounts to denial of how bad things are and only dulls our ability to face something in order to better act against it, thereby inhibiting us from taking action that could potentially aid in fighting off something bad.
Thirdly, this predetermination credo serves to legitimize a lot of unjust and destructive events (and abuse) in the world, that whole "the poor on Earth will be kings in Heaven" stuff; if you were born a slave, then that's what you were "meant" to be; if you experience lots of horrible hardship, that's just fine and dandy, because that's just what is supposed to happen. That in itself is one of the most viciously foul beliefs in Christianity.
Another related concept is how this omni-predetermination idea and total passivity regarding it is solidified with the idea of eternal life, plus that life on Earth is not very important, because the real important part will happen in Heaven. I think this latter idea can be used in very destructive ways, because it can be used to make people become and remain insensitive to so much that is wrong in the world (the whole "religion is the opium of the masses" stuff). I consider life on Earth extremely important, and careless, uncaring, aloof, alienated people are always contributing to making the world a horrible place, often by negligence and disinterest, by lack of commitment, by petty selfishness.
I also see that Christians love the idea of "original sin," because they basically interpret it as a free pass to always sin. You know, "even before I was born, I already had sin, additionally I'm human, so it means I'm always sinning, so what's there to do about it?" Which is why Christianity puts so much emphasis on the forgiveness of sins, not on not sinning in the first place. From the little I know about historic changes in messages and sermons in Christianity, this appears to me as a recent development. In older times, clergy were quite fiery and threatening in inculcating the idea that people shouldn't sin, to the point that it was completely neurotic ( profoundly intimidatory and apocalyptic) and mostly a manipulation of lots of fears and guilts, with very little emphasis on positive emotions and attitudes.
In a conversation I recently had where I talked about acting to ensure people don't sin in the first place, the Christian group I was with got uncomfortable and dismayed. "What do you mean not sin in the first place? It's so much better to sin and ask to be forgiven, with or without repentance. " Evidently, they didn't explicitly talk like this, but when you examined their attitudes and behaviors, beneath a lot of excuses, it's what it amounted to.
Becase I see there is a lot of stress on Christians to forgive sins, but not so much to refrain from sinning, much less, heaven forbid, that you actually take action to set others straight. This fluffiness regarding character issues and taking action (specially out in the world) is part of this whole cafeteria church/religion phenomenon that we are watching. People pick one or two things they like about some religion, specially if it doesn't interfere with their lack of character and all the crap they do in life, and, voilà, they are very happy in being so "religious." It is a yuppy, frivolous, consumer-type attitude to religion.
On the bright side, one thing that I like that I have come across which I think is a very modern approach in Christianity is the whole idea of a relationship with God and working to build such a relationship. Now, it's not the idea itself I'm referring to, I'm sure one could argue that's as old as the religion itself, but it's more of how it's worded and approached, this whole "nice relationship" with God, who is stressed as a God of love, instead of a God of punishment and fear.