Tuesday, January 03, 2006

How Now, Tao Cow

In his latest post in our dialog, Ernie gave us an introduction to his views on "The Tao" and how it relates to his views on hell. I am going to quote large blocks and respond.

I believe:

1. There exists a universal, transcendent standard of virtue -- what C.S. Lewis called 'The Tao', and Jews call 'The Law.'

2. All individuals, societies, and religious traditions intrinsically posses some meaningful knowledge of that Tao (even if they differ on details, or don't associate it with a specific deity)

3. Every individual faces a moral struggle between serving Self and serving The Tao (however they understand it).

4. Our choices (as well as our circumstances) impact our ability to know and follow the Tao (and indirectly impact other's)

Of these four statements, I have do not have any major problems with (3) and (4), or even (2). Most of my disagreement is with the first one, mostly because of what I think it implies. That is, there may be some elaboration of "universal, transcendent standard of virtue" that I might find reasonable, but I am not sure it would be very much like what the Jews (and Christians) would call "The Law".

Now, one might infer from (3) that the moral struggle is somehow a defining characteristic of our lives. That begins the trouble, and that is where Ernie continues.

And in the end, we will all be judged according to multiple dimensions:

i. how we treated other human beings

ii. how well we responded to the Tao we knew

iii. whether we submit to the Tao or demand that it submit to our Self

I presume that this is also something that Ernie believes. But why does he believe this? Why must there be a judgement? Why does he believe there is an afterlife? Ernie has gone from a generally reasonable way of framing ideas about living a moral life and jumped to judgement, with the accompanying implication that there is both a judge and an afterlife in which judgement can be passed.

But ultimately, if any individual chooses to ignore the Tao they've received in order to serve Self at the expense of others, they deserve hell (in fact, God would be unjust not to carry out that sentence). In fact, such a hell seems a logical necessity if a) choices have real consequences, and b) souls persist after death. This hell-worthy behavior could include:

- denying the existence/personal relevance of the received Tao

- defending an imperfect Tao against a superior one (to preserve Self-ish loopholes)

- refusing readily-available divine assistance to fulfill or honor the Tao

There is a huge logical leap here. How does hell become a logical necessity based on (a) and (b)? Is hell the only possible (imaginable) consequence of choosing to ignore the Tao? What kind of hell are we talking about? The really bad eternal kind? Or some kind of squishy hell that is only as bad, or lasts only as long, as necessary to balance things out?

Also, when I compare the items in this latest list against the list of dimensions of judgement earlier, it looks like these latest items fall mostly under (ii) or perhaps (iii). I am unclear if Ernie is simply giving some examples that all happen to fall in one category, or if he trying to say that only violations in some dimensions will lead to hell.

I am not saying that you need to accept the Bible (or even Christianity) as inerrant, literal, or fundamental -- any more than I treat my physics textbooks as inerrant, infallible, or unbiased. Rather, I merely trust that they describe a genuine reality in a mostly reliable and honest way, as the starting point for my personal observations. I don't even think you need to accept my starting point, as long as you're willing to start somewhere (versus refusing even to try to find The Tao).

Would it not be accurate to say that Christianity and the Bible were the starting point for my personal observations? And I have left it behind, because in my search for the Tao (as I suppose you could call it), I have found that much of what I would call Christianity, as well as other theistic religions, have substantial deficiencies, and what is left cannot be properly called Christianity.

Which brings me to my final question, Alan, and something that has long puzzled me. I totally understand why you decided to reject the fundamentalism of your youth as you learned more about the Bible and justice. However, I just can't figure out why that also led to your rejecting all Christianity (including, say, the milder but still robust British evangelicalism practiced by C.S. Lewis) -- much less (as far as I can tell) all of theism and deism. To me, that would be like rejecting all of physics upon discovering that Newton was wrong, which sounds more like spite than logic.

After all, if it is merely the eternal-ness of hell that bothers you, there seem plenty of alternate hermeneutics that would still "fit the data" while avoiding that particular philosophical problem. Yeah, it is a bit ad hoc, but so is an awful lot of science, when you get right down to it.

A proper answer to Ernie's final question is longer than can be included here. In some ways, that was the reason for this blog in the first place. But I will try to summarize some ideas very briefly here.

The eternal-ness of hell was certainly an important consideration, and I think the reason for that was that when other problems are viewed through that lens, those other problems are more clearly seen. As I have stated over and over, if eternal damnation is a possible consequence, we better have a reliable way to avoid it. What we have, however, is clearly not reliable.

Like anybody else, Christians can be slippery people. We fight, consciously and unconsciously, to protect our most cherished beliefs. This was something that has become so clear to me, not just in matters of religion, but in software development, politics and other venues. But what if those beliefs are wrong? Would we not be doing harm to ourselves and others to fight for them if they were wrong? In our pursuit of the Tao, as it were, do we not have an obligation to reject that which is hurtfully false? ("Hurtfully false"? You know what I mean.) I think Christianity falls into that category, despite its inclusion of some good things. I would rather keep what is good and discard the rest.

That will have to be all for tonight.

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