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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Formative, Normative, and Cultural Doctrines

In the introduction of my book, The Homemade Atheist, I asked, "Why are there so many different doctrines on the same subject from the same book? It has been an enigma to me for years that if God exists and is perfect, and if he indeed has a standard by which all should live, why doesn't everyone understand the truth he apparently meant to convey in the same way?

Wide variations in belief exist in all religious systems partly because of three main methods of scripture interpretations: (1) formative; (2) normative; (3) cultural.
  • The Formative Method, according to some Biblical scholars, includes glossalalia which was not intended to be used throughout the life of the church. Speaking in tongues is only addressed at any length in the Book of Acts (where actual languages seem to have been spoken somewhere on earth to establish the legitimacy of the church) and the first epistle to the Corinthians where "unknown" languages were spoken and interpretation had to be given. These "spiritual gifts" might have been given because there was yet no New Testament. The Formative Method is also sometimes used to explain the deaths of Ananias and Saphira after they lied to the Holy Spirit in the person of Peter. Their deaths, also, may have been recorded to give the new religion God's sanction. And even though lying still goes on in the church worldwide (no pun intended), I don't see wholesale death occuring in "holy" sanctuaries today because of deceit and lying.
  • The Normative Method of interpretation establishes an unchangeable standard or pattern for believers everywhere and at all times. Examples in this case would be proper Christian conduct (especially for women) at home and in communal worship, prophesying and preaching (which many believe are quite different), and the Lord's Supper. (References: 1 Corinthians 11 and Galations 3.)
  • The Cultural Method is used by denominations claiming that the entire Bible was influenced by cultural conditions at the time of its writing such as length of hair for both sexes. And especially concerning women, since females today are most often as educated as males are, it is, therefore, so say some scholars, appropriate now for women to teach, pray, and preach in worship assemblies. But this argument from cultural bias could be used to dismiss anything in the Bible if it does not suit someone's sensibilities in the modern world.

I am not lobbying for either the formative, normative, or cultural methods of interpreting scripture. To me, the real question is whether the Bible is the inerrant Word of God and how one can tell. As I read it, there are many unfulfilled prophecies, scientific inaccuracies including the mention of mythical beasts and the belief that the earth has corners and is flat in this revered work. And a perfect God is its author?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Fear of God

In a speech in Germany, Pope Benedict attacked both Islam and secularism. During the course of that speech, he said that atheists are "afraid of God." This sticks in my mind because, ironically, an acquaintance of mine had asked me if I was an unbeliever because I fear God! (And she's not even Catholic!)

I simply answered, "How can I fear or be afraid of anything that doesn't even exist?"

I went on to say, "Frankly, in certain situations, I'm actually much more afraid of militant religionists. I wouldn't want to meet one in a dark alley somewhere."

(Of course, I can't even remember a time when I was ever in a dark alley.)

Many followers of religion malign and kill each other in great numbers over insignificant issues. Austin Cline, in an article about fear of God and atheism, stated: "Beliefs [of religious adherents] can cause them to develop inflated egos all out of proportion to anything that is really deserved. This does not mean, however, that any of their beliefs have any basis in reality or that their gods, spirits, fairies, and whatnot are anything to be afraid of."

Fear based on religious faith that cannot be proven true often leaves emotional scars. Many of those who were in the Worldwide Church of God and other legalistic belief systems can attest to that fact.

Of course, I know that atheists are in the minority, but our numbers are growing. Fear would most probably greatly diminish if we understood what Clarence Darrow articulated in a most astute article. This agnostic (primarily famous because of the Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee way back in 1925) said:

"When we fully understand the brevity of life, its fleeting joys and unavoidable pains; when we accept the facts that all men and women are approaching an inevitable doom: the consciousness of it should make us more kindly and considerate of each other. This feeling should make men and women use their best efforts to help their fellow travelers on the road, to make the path brighter and easier as we journey on. It should bring a closer kinship, a better understanding, and a deeper sympathy for the wayfarers who must live a common life and die a common death."

I admire that man. We need more like him.

To me, the fear of God is not the beginning of wisdom, but the end.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Faith and Hope

So many evil deeds are carried out every day throughout the globe. I sometimes can't bear watching TV news or reading newspaper articles about war atrocities, genocide, and the enourmous cruelty carried out by individuals against other individuals for no apparent reason other than the thrill it gives to warped minds.

One of the most tragic murders I've heard or read about locally in recent years happened on Halloween in 2005. The victim was an attractive, unmarried woman, 25 years of age, who earned her living as a freelance pholographer. Apparently she was a happy, family-and-church-oriented daughter, sister, and aunt who lived with a friend next door to her parents.

While on a photo shoot, from what newspapers reported and what scant information can be pieced together from one of the two convicted perpetrators, she alledgedly was kidnapped, stripped naked, spread-eagled and bound in a bed, repeatedly and brutally raped, tortured with a knife and finally shot numerous times. This young woman was humiliated and tormented until her life was snuffed out. Her lifeless body was then burned.

A shirttail relative of this horribly abused, victimized woman and one of my co-workers expressed to me her belief (faith) that the murdered woman did not experience any pain during her ordeal since God was watching over her!

"Why would you think that?" I asked.

"Because it just makes me feel better," my friend pitifully replied as tears welled in her eyes. "And she was a wonderful Christian!"

I said nothing in an attempt to reason with her. I just gave her a big hug and let her cry.

I would describe this dear friend as devout, morally scrupulous, generally thoughtful, and polite. She is a widow and a caring mother and grandmother. She is a dedicated, knowledgeable employee in a women's health clinic. She works tirelessly for her church and attends mass regularly. Yet, she had no objective proof for the validity of her statement. She only had "faith" that her God protected this young woman from actual, physical pain because, otherwise what happened was too horrible to contemplate. I wonder if my friend thinks that God also watched as the young woman cried out for mercy while she was raped and mutilated; or did he simply turn his back on her after he fixed it so she at least wouldn't feel physical pain.

To me this is a graphic example of what faith (firm belief without logical proof) does to a person. It distorts rationality. If my friend's God has the kind of power to eradicate pain, why didn't he step in and prevent this senseless atrocity from happening in the first place?

In several thesauruses (or thesauri), the words "faith" and "hope" are synonyms. To me, no matter how strong a person says their "faith" is, it's really just "fervent hope."