After close to 20 years of ardent atheism (including a handful of years of atheist activism, which included a thoroughgoing opposition to religion), and after nearly 40 years of basically never believing in God, I recently converted to Christianity and was baptized. I’ll spare the details regarding how this unfolded, but those interested are welcome to check out my testimonial (first 11ish minutes).
Even before my conversion, however, I had developed an interest in the study of religion as a source of wisdom for living in the social, biological, and physical world out there, and the psychological world in here. Jordan Peterson, through his analysis of Biblical passages, showed me that this set of texts is rich with powerful ideas for life. This in conjunction with a desire for positive community led me to start attending church every week as an atheist. It was only after approximately 6 months of attendance that I converted, and the conversion was induced by factors mostly external to The Village.
I am in the early stages of developing a writing and podcast series that will be focused on the wisdom of The Bible. The series is intended to appeal to believers, non-believers, and believers of other faiths alike. I very much want to make this series appealing to nonbelievers. Not because I’m trying to convert them – though I would be very happy for anyone who genuinely finds God – but because I want them to know that participating in a religious community – even as a non-believer as I did for my first 6 months at this church – can be a tremendously enriching source of wisdom, community, strength, support, and good mental and social health. I’ll grant that the benefits that I have enjoyed have magnified greatly since I became a believer. But even before that my life was being enriched through this community.
With all of that preamble aside, I will proceed onto the meat of this first instalment of what I hope will be a deep and long series.
On the Character of the Old Testament vs. the New Testament God
Reading through the Old Testament, one can come to the impression that God loves us but is also very jealous and will only put up with so much disobedience to His ways before He comes down with force of Biblical proportions. When God returns in the New Testament in the form of Jesus Christ, His character is much softer. Much, much more tolerant of deviation from the norms, very big on redemption and second chances, and so forth.
There are a few ways that I’ve learned to look at this fairly stark transition. One idea that I have been toying with – though admittedly have not researched yet – is that the character of God at various points in history in part reflects the needs of the people to whom He is exerting influence over. During the time of the Old Testament God, civilization was younger. When a group is trying to get a system off the ground, it will have less ability to withstand deviations from the norm than will a more established cultural system.
This, no doubt, is a big part of why cults tend to exert far more pressure to conform than, say, the Roman Catholic Church. A small cult, for example, cannot weather the loss of a few members nearly as easily as the Catholic Church. If a cult of 50 people loses 2 members, or has 5-8 members engaging in unorthodox conduct, it will detract from the cult to a magnificently greater degree than if the same number of Catholics did the same.
By the time of Jesus, however, the social institutions had had hundreds of years to become further entrenched. Further, I believe there was likely more constructive interaction between the Jews and others around them than had been the case during times of the Old Testament – through increased trade and less linguistic isolation, for example. Both of these considerations would create a situation in which God may wish to offer a Version 2.0 to guide people through a period of transition into a changed world.
Similarly, another idea that I have been toying with is that perhaps there is indeed a single God that expresses Himself to different peoples around the world in ways that they will be able to relate to. One of the most brilliant ideas I have ever come across was said to me in the comment section of a YouTube video (seriously!). The discussion I had been a part of had something to do with how the world’s religions are not ultimately the same as each other. I noted, for example, that no one could claim that Islam is as or more peaceful than Jainism. As Sam Harris once said, Jainism is a religion wherein the crazier you get as a Jain, the more harmless you become. To the point where when you walk around town, you’re constantly scanning the ground to make sure that you don’t inadvertently step on an insect.
The brilliant comment was essentially that there is no way that Jainism could have taken off in what became the Muslim world. There was far too much winner-take-all conflict occurring for people to seriously enact a religion that has substantial roots in the principle of non-harm. If someone had tried to start such a thing there, it would have floundered due to its poor psychosocial fit in the culture at that time.
An idea that I have been toying with is that perhaps the true God is coming to different peoples at different times in different forms and characters to relay to them what they need to hear then and there. This isn’t to say that every religion is necessarily the work of God. But perhaps God is (or has been) reflected by multiple belief systems. This brings to mind the analogy of a bunch of blind people feeling an elephant. The person feeling the trunk will have a very different impression than the one feeling the belly, but they’re both touching an elephant. I fully acknowledge that I could be completely out to lunch on this. But it’s an idea that I have been thinking about a bit.
The Old Testament and The Tao
I perceive substantial conceptual overlap between what is termed “The Law” in the Old Testament and the Tao in Taoism. Taoism is an ancient eastern philosophy. It does not have a God. In it, “the Tao” means “The Way”. This same terminology has been used in the Old Testament as another way of referring to The Law. In Taoism, the wise person is one who can discern The Way and have the self-discipline and courage to live in accordance with it. This person will understand the ways of the world – how the world works physically, biologically, psychologically, and socially – and will skillfully work within this non-negotiable system to achieve the best results for themselves and those around them, both now and in the long term. One doesn’t have to view this in terms of morality. One can easily simply view the Tao as a dispassionate consideration of how the world actually works.
Why Follow The Law (or The Tao)?
An interesting way of viewing The Law and the other directions of the Old Testament God was offered by Jordan Peterson. He described the Old Testament God and The Law as something that could be conceptualized as the sum total of the wisdom that has been accrued in the history of the culture. Ideas and practices that have been enacted by many people over many generations.
So why follow this long-standing wisdom? Well, for one, it has stood the test of time. By all appearances, it could be described as an “evolutionarily stable arrangement” – culturally and biologically speaking. Richard Dawkins coined the terms “meme” and “memetics” decades ago. A meme is essentially a unit of culture. It could be an idea, a joke, a song, an expression, a set of practices, etc. In his book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins argued that memes and genes are quite similar in terms of their propagation.
Here’s one thing that genes and memes have in common: most mutations are either neutral or harmful to the carrier; only a sparing minority are helpful. And this is where the wisdom of trembling before The Law (or the Tao) comes in. When one flouts something that has stood the test of time for many generations, what are the odds that the new idea is going to be an improvement upon the old? What are the odds that it will be as easy to implement as one thinks, or that it won’t have any number of unforeseen consequences? Indeed, there is very good reason to fear God.
Where Does Jesus Come In?
Jesus flummoxed many a pharisee by His and His follower’s recurrent flouting of various aspects of The Law. Not insisting upon washing hands before meals, not proscribing the eating of pig meat, engaging in important works on the Sabbath, etc. After he cured an ill person on the Sabbath and was being questioned by religious leaders about how he just violated the law of not working on the Sabbath, Jesus made several great points. He noted that the Sabbath was created for man, and not the other way around. Secondly, he questioned the goodness of not doing good when it is needed on the Sabbath.
Rules can be very functional and useful, but they’re never perfect and applicable in all circumstances. Furthermore, things change. What was a highly functional pattern of behavior yesterday may not be today. When societies change, sometimes social and moral practices are challenged to change, too, so as to better serve the people in the new normal. The Internet and social media have profoundly altered how our society works, how we interact, etc. You can’t make these sorts of sweeping changes and expect that a pre-Internet Tao will be equally effective in a post-Internet world.
So, while we are wise to profoundly respect The Law and be reticent to flout it, we are also wise to not let our devotion to The Law become so ossified that we are made inflexible when circumstances change, and completely closed to the possibility that someone may have a more adaptive idea. While it would be arrogant to be overconfident in one’s own divergent ideas, it would be maladaptive and closed minded to act as if new ideas are never correct.
Jordan Peterson has viewed Jesus as that humble hero who, while respecting The Law, is also able to discern when an aspect of The Law is no longer fully fit for purpose, and to find a new way of doing things. Jesus is an enterprising outgrowth of the Old Testament God. He knows The Law, but he also knows the spirit of The Law. As such, he can see when The Law as written may no longer be best serving The Law as intended. This is the sort of argument that frequently gets made when the Supreme Court is considering amending our Constitution.
Summing It Up Secularly
The content of this writing and a forthcoming podcast based on it provides one set of examples of how Biblical theology can have profound importance and relevance to us, irrespective of whether we take the stories to be literally true or in any way connected to God. Christians will find meaning and value in the teachings in ways that a non-believer will not; but the non-believer will certainly not walk out empty-handed.
Different things speak to different people in different ways based on what they are going through. Our minds glom onto relevance. As such, we should not be surprised by religious diversity among different peoples, or within the same community at different times or under different social conditions.
A criticism that many atheists have made about religion is that it can be used to justify so many moral/political positions as well as their direct opposites. People’s moral predilections often influence their interpretations of the text – e.g., how to interpret verses, selecting which verses are of particular importance (atheists sometimes call this “cherry-picking”), etc. I’m very sympathetic to this criticism. However, I will also say that more often than not it seems that enduring moral debates endure because there is more than one very valid way to interpret things. Often times moral dilemmas involve pitting one valued moral tenet against another (e.g., the rights of the individual versus the rights of the collective – which itself is a collection of individuals). Religious texts cannot help but speak to multiple moral dimensions. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when we see cases in which The Bible appears to lean one way – putting Moral Principle A in the foreground, and sometimes leans another way because in this circumstance Moral Principle B is the pivotal consideration. Given this, it’s difficult to avoid the outcome we see: people sometimes treat their religious text the way that they treat an all-you-can-eat buffet – take what you want and leave the rest, and if what is there isn’t exactly what you want, throw some sauce or spice on it.
Moving along, there is something to be said for respecting tradition. Traditions are memes that have spread prolifically, withstanding generations worth of competing ideas, criticism, etc. It would be foolish to not give this level of memetic success respect, and to have a healthy degree of doubt with respect to your alternative views.
However, this doesn’t mean that traditions cannot be suboptimal. It is generally a good idea to encourage honesty. But what if an SS officer asked a German homeowner if he was hiding any Jews below the floorboards? Should this German be honest this time? Special circumstances can call for special considerations. And what if the world changes? What if social media becomes the new public square – which it has? Do the rules for these businesses (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) need to be changed? Does it make sense to say that the “it’s a private business” philosophy doesn’t apply in cases where it impedes on democracy itself? Further, just because a system has become established doesn’t mean that it became established for nothing but good reasons. One need only look at US politics to see how ideas that do not come close to optimally serving the people can be entrenched due to nefarious forces.
So, we need to be open. Careful. But open. If we are not open, we cannot adapt. But if we are not careful, we too could become Fallen Angels.