Works in Progress

I have way too many irons in the fire. I have a lot of things to work on (in addition to, you know, work) – far too many to actually finish any of them. As a friend reminded me recently, finishing things is a skill. I have that skill, but I need to sharpen it. Sometimes it helps to write everything out – and who knows? Maybe something here will be of interest to a reader. So, in no particular order:

Servants of the Secret Fire

Yes, this is a fantasy hearbreaker. A Tolkien-esque one no less! Until Cubicle 7 put out The One Ring, I was working on a system that actually reflected Middle-Earth. When TOR came out, I really felt that they did a good job at my task, so I let it languish.

The system as it is still has some interesting things about it. I wrote a post about attribute decay, for example, that is part of SotSF, and there are other elements in there that I like. But, an obvious problem: I do not work for Cubicle 7, which currently has the right to publish a RPG based on Middle-Earth. So whatever I do to complete this project would just be for me, for groups I game with, or maybe to release out into the world for free.

Simplified D&D

Years ago – eight years ago now? – before 5th edition existed for D&D, I hacked 4th Edition in order to run a game for a group that wanted to play D&D but wasn’t interested in learning a lot of rules. Or, in some cases, any rules. Though that hack was designed with 4th Ed in mind, I could definitely adapt it to 5th Ed. It’s even something I’m still interested in playing and running.

Rewilding the Bible

One of my problems is that I am interested in too many things. Scattered. But one thing I’m interested in is rewilding, and more than that, the idea that for the most part our civilization is not a good idea, certainly not in the long term, and that some other way of life is probably the way to go.

There are plenty of other people who know a lot more about this, who are working to learn self-sufficiency, and becoming ungovernable, and training in prehistoric survival skills. I’m not very good at any of these things, yet.

I have noticed, though, that I know more about the Bible than other people who are interested in rewilding. What I would like to do is to create a resource, probably the length of a short book, that looks at passages in the Bible that reflect this worldview. There is actually plenty there. And based on the reception of a recent sermon, I think there are people who might be able to hear what I have to say.

95 Tweets Expanded

A few years ago, two friends of mine and I assembled 95 Tweets, our homage to Luther’s 95 theses, all arguing against the idea of a Hell of eternal conscious torment. Even from a purely Christian standpoint, even from a literalist, the arguments for Hell are incredibly week, and the counter-arguments kind of overwhelming. So we overwhelmed, with 95 tweets.

The problem is that, with a barrage like that, there’s no point at which to engage. Even if someone wanted to argue a contrary position (and I know many do) it’s hard to get a hand-hold. So, I feel like I need to expand the ideas and claims that we made in the 95 Tweets. Part of what makes me hesitant is that there is already a lot out there about this issue, and I need to make sure that what I would contribute would be worthwhile, and not just replicating someone else’s work.

5E Setting: Dragonblade

I started a D&D 5E game set in what I’m not calling Tianxia, but that was just called Dragonblade at the time. It’s a south and east Asian mashup in the way that a lot of fantasy settings are a north and western Europe mashup, primarily drawing on Japanese, Chinese and Indian history and mythology. It’s fun, and I’ve posted a bit of my work on this blog before. It’s also the result of my frustrations with other attempts to do the same thing. Does that make it a hearbreaker? Sort of. Oh well. I think it’s a cool setting, and I’ve run the first part of a game in it. My rule is that I design settings that I would be excited to play in, and this one fits the bill.

5E Setting: Twilight of the Gods

I recently completed a long-term campaign called Twilight of the Gods. The setting is mythic Scandinavia, and beyond that, Europe and the wider world. The setting takes Ragnarok literally, and a campaign set in it will begin when Ragnarok is just about to. The advantage here is that the setting is actually slightly simpler than the base setting for 5th Edition. I’ve also already put in a lot of the work already, having run a full campaign.

5E Setting: Alaam

This is a cool setting that I’ve sketched out, but in which I have yet to run a campaign. It is inspired by the stories of 1001 Arabian Nights as well as aspects of Islamic mythology, blended with Dungeons & Dragons of course. It has a monotheistic religion, and godlike genies ruling a realm of raw and exaggerated elements, and other coolness. Less developed than Dragonblade or Twilight of the Gods, but still really cool.

This Blog

I’ve been blogging since 2006, and have carried over two other incarnations of my blog to this site. So, if you want, there are 11 years of my writing to choose from. Can’t recommend it all, though.

I’ve been working to be more consistent in writing, and I’ve found some cool connections on Reddit, as well as continued connections through social media. I’m trying to build up weekly, ideally daily, writing discipline. I’m not there yet, but it’s a vehicle for sharpening my skills. It always has been.

#95Tweets Against Hell Compiled

As promised, here are all of our 95 tweets, categorized by the kind of argument they are making – ethical, theological and biblical, in that order. (I’ve gone through each of them and updated some of them from our first version) What it boils down to is that there is no ethical justification for Hell whatsoever, no good theological reason to posit a doctrine of Hell, and there are literally hundreds of Biblical passages that do not support an eternal Hell of conscious torment. Given enough time and dedication, we probably could have assembled 190 tweets, or theses, against a doctrine of eternal Hell.

We did not even scratch the surface of the ethical, theological and interpretive work done to contend against the doctrine of eternal Hell. What we did is draw from our own thoughts as well as places where arguments accumulate, particularly debates around the issue of Hell, and some of the books we have read and are reading.

Obviously, we are hearkening back to Luther’s 95 Theses. We have no expectation that our tweets will have anywhere near that impact. On the other hand, the doctrine of Hell is far worse than indulgences could possibly be. We want to fire the equivalent of grape-shot into the doctrine of Hell and sink it forever, so that no one ever has to feel it is necessary to believe in Hell ever again. Over-ambitions, we know, but it’s a start.

 

Ethical/rational

#95Tweets E1: Eternal Hell is not in any way just (restorative) – it eternally severs relationship and eternally prevents redemption

#95Tweets E2: Eternal Hell is the teaching that there are people and things that can never be redeemed, even by God

#95Tweets E3: Eternal Hell is retribution made infinite, and is therefore even less noble than vengeance

#95Tweets E4: Eternal Hell lacks the sole moral underpinning of punishment, which is correction

#95Tweets E5: Eternal Hell is beyond disproportionate – eternal Hell cannot be an earned punishment, no matter what a finite being does

#95Tweets E6: Humans perpetrate horrific, incomprehensible evil – eternal Hell is infinitely worse than any human (finite) evil

#95Tweets E7: Punishment in an eternal Hell would even be unfair to Hitler, who committed incomprehensibly evil but finite crimes

#95Tweets E8: With the effects of poor information, bias, culture, neurobiology, psychology and so on, we do not make free decisions

#95Tweets E9: This amounts to a situation where human fallibility, not even human misdeeds, can result in eternal torture in Hell

#95Tweets E10: As eternal Hell is traditionally understood, mental illness could easily be an absolute bar from salvation

#95Tweets E11: Fear of (eternal) punishment is the most brutal, crass and callous way to seek to encourage good

#95Tweets E12: Fear of punishment is not effective in encouraging good, it only prevents overt misdeeds while being watched

#95Tweets E13: Whatever happens after death, there is no concrete evidence whatsoever that anything like Hell exists

#95Tweets E14: Eternal Hell is the worst possible story ending – for the vast majority, the end is an infinite and insurmountable tragedy

#95Tweets E15: It is morally untenable to expect any person of conscience to enjoy Heaven knowing that others are in Hell

#95Tweets E16: Eternal Hell makes Heaven look a lot like North Korea – worship the ruler or else, and ignore the suffering around you

#95Tweets E17: Believers in eternal Hell must either be hypocritical, saying they believe but not behaving as if they do (1/2)

#95Tweets E18: Or believers in eternal Hell must be callous, understanding the infinite stakes but not caring proportionally (2/2)

#95Tweets E19: The doctrine of eternal Hell encourages either hypocrisy or callousness by necessity

#95Tweets E20: A reasonable person’s response to any possibility of eternal torture in Hell would be constant panic and desperation

#95Tweets E21: A doctrine of annihilation is morally preferable to eternal torture by every conceivable measure

#95Tweets E22: A doctrine of universalism is morally preferable to annihilation, if God is both powerful enough to save and also good

#95Tweets E23: Since Aristotle, we have a strong case that good is not good simply because God says it is

#95Tweets E24: For God’s actions to be good, they must actually be good, not just called good; eternal Hell could only be “good” by fiat

#95Tweets E25: The only crime that might justly warrant a punishment of eternal torture would be…eternally torturing people

#95Tweets E26: Yesterday, about 150,000 human beings died. In traditional Hell theology, we must conclude that the majority are in Hell

#95Tweets E27: Given that being in Hell is to burn, and scream, and beg, and weep for eternity, 1 human being in this condition is too many

#95Tweets E28: If eternal Hell and Heaven both exist, no person of conscience could be at peace in Heaven

#95Tweets #Ethics: For all of these reasons and more, eternal Hell is an ethically unjustifiable belief.

 

Theological

#95Tweets T1: Eliminating a doctrine of eternal Hell does not mean eliminating justice, judgement, punishment, sin

#95Tweets T2: Eternal Hell is entirely unnecessary to any traditional view of salvation, no matter how exclusivist

#95Tweets T3: Eternal Hell does nothing whatsoever to glorify God, unless the powerful torturing the weak is glorious

#95Tweets T4: Eternal Hell is about vindication of an exclusive, violent orthodoxy even at an infinite cost to those left out

#95Tweets T5: Eternal Hell renders God’s love meaningless – no definition of love could include allowing infinite torture

#95Tweets T6: Eternal Hell renders God’s justice meaningless, as eternal punishment cannot be just by any definition

#95Tweets T7: Eternal Hell renders God’s mercy meaningless – eternal punishment which will never abate. Couldn’t be less merciful

#95Tweets T8: Eternal Hell renders God’s sovereignty meaningless. If God is good, God is impotent to save the vast majority of humans

#95Tweets T9: Eternal Hell renders God’s power meaningless, since God’s plan to restore all creation can be foiled by human sin

#95Tweets T10: Eternal Hell renders God’s omniscience meaningless, since God just can’t figure out how to save most people

#95Tweets T11: Eternal Hell renders God’s holiness meaningless, given that evil and sin and torture would be eternal as God is eternal

#95Tweets T12: Eternal Hell teaches of a God with finite patience but an infinite capacity for violence and retribution

#95Tweets T13: Rather than a “day of wrath”, Eternal Hell means that a trillion trillion trillion days of wrath are just the beginning

#95Tweets T14: Eternal Hell means that whatever else God is, God cannot be good by any reasonable definition of the word

#95Tweets T15: Eternal Hell annihilates meaning of all kinds – what is the point of doing anything but fearing eternal torture?

#95Tweets T16: Eternal Hell means we know God primarily as monster – monstrous judge, monstrous father, monstrous creator, etc.

#95Tweets T17: Eternal Hell is far beyond even the most evil we could visit upon any children – and are we not God’s children?

#95Tweets T18: Eternal Hell cedes eternal victory to sin, evil and suffering. God, and goodness, fail utterly for most

#95Tweets T19: In contrast to scripture, Eternal Hell promises eternity to unrepentant sinners

#95Tweets T20: Eternal Hell ascribes infinitude, eternity and finality to pain, horror, despair and terror

#95Tweets T21: A doctrine of eternal Hell puts torture at the heart of the Gospel. God is the tormentor

#95Tweets T22: Eternal Hell makes a mystery of horrific evil – it is beyond comprehension, rather than limited and destined for defeat

#95Tweets T23: Eternal Hell teaches of a God who is incapable of empathy – an image of God the callous sociopath

#95Tweets T24: Eternal Hell ascribes to human sin the power to overwhelm and defeat Jesus’ incarnation, life, death and resurrection

#95Tweets T25: If there is an Eternal Hell Jesus’ incarnation, life, death and resurrection accomplish nothing definitive

#95Tweets T26: Eternal Hell breaks God’s covenants – ex: it is infinitely worse than a second Flood

#95Tweets T27: Eternal Hell means that God calls “good” a creation in which flawed beings can err so greatly they are tortured forever

#95Tweets T28: Eternal Hell means, in justification theology, that First Adam’s sin is more powerful than Second Adam’s obedience

#95Tweets T29: Apparently Jesus descended to Hell, as in the Apostle’s Creed, but left it intact, only saving himself – cowardly

#95Tweets T30: Eternal Hell, if you believe in the Devil, ascribes to him victory in the vast majority of human souls

#95Tweets T31: Eternal life contrasted with annihilation more fully fits the themes and teachings of both the Old and New Testament

#95Tweets #Theology: For these reasons and more, eternal Hell is an unnecessary, horrifying and destructive theology.

 

Biblical

#95Tweets B1: The overwhelming majority of Bible verses support some form of annihilation; more support universalism than eternal Hell

#95Tweets B2: Gen 3:19: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, not dust to eternal conscious torment. Death, not eternity, is our default end

#95Tweets B3: The Bible never mentions Hell in the original languages. We (mis)translate Sheol, Hades, Tartarus and Gehenna as “Hell”

#95Tweets B4: Sheol, the realm of the dead in the OT, is nothing at all like Hell, but is clearly where they thought the dead went

#95Tweets B5: Tartarus, sometimes translated as “Hell”, is a prison holding the Greek titans after the Olympian gods defeated them

#95Tweets B6: Gehenna, or Ge-Hinnom, translated “Hell”, was the smoldering garbage-dump in a valley outside Jerusalem

#95Tweets B7: Hades, translated as “Hell”, is imported from Greek mythology, and is simply the realm of the dead, or the god of death

#95Tweets B8: Hades, while still not Hell, is thrown into the lake of fire and destroyed at the climax of the book of Revelation

#95Tweets B9: Genesis and the Gospels compare Satan/sin to a croucher or devourer, never an eternal torturer

#95Tweets B10: In Job, Satan is clearly an ally of God, or at least a colleague, and is busy going to and fro, not torturing anyone

#95Tweets B11: In 1 Samuel 28, “Sheol”, elsewhere translated as “Hell”, is apparently where the prophet Samuel is. Prophets in Hell?

#95Tweets B12: Psalm 139 – God is everywhere, even Sheol, elsewhere translated as “Hell.” No eternal separation

#95Tweets B13: In Psalms, sin = death, perish, consume, destroy – examples are Psalm 5:5-6, Psalm 37:38 – no eternal torture

#95Tweets B14: Sin = death in the Prophets: Jer 12:3, Isa 1:28; 33:12, Ezek 18:4, Nahum 1:2-13, Zeph 1:14-18, Mal 4:1-3

#95Tweets B15: Isaiah 25:6-9, God swallows up death forever, and everyone rejoices. Except the billions screaming in Hell, right? No

#95Tweets B16: The NT dichotomy is clearly between life and death – Luke 20:34-38, John 3:16; 6:48-58, Rom 6:23

#95Tweets B17: Matt 7:21-23 Jesus contrasts those who enter into his kingdom and who do not – no eternal torment mentioned

#95Tweets B18: Matthew 10:28 Jesus threatens Satan’s power to destroy, not eternally torture

#95Tweets B19: In Matthew 24:36-51 the sinner is cut to pieces, destroyed, not tortured for eternity

#95Tweets B20: Mtt 18:34; Luk 12:58-59 Jesus implies that the unreconciled receive finite, proportional punishment

#95Tweets B21: The rich man & Lazarus is not literal – if literal, then all in Heaven will hear people begging in Hell for all eternity

#95Tweets B22: Sin in John = death, die, perish – John 6:50, 8:51, 10:28, 12:25 – no eternal torture

#95Tweets B23: Sin = death – examples are Matt 3:10 and 13:40, and then Luke 9:25, and Acts 3:23

#95Tweets B24: Rom 2:7, 1 Cor 14, 2 Tim 1:10 – the NT message from start to finish is rescue from destruction, not eternal torture

#95Tweets B25: Paul says nothing about Hell – kind of a big thing to omit from every single letter, but he did not believe in an eternal Hell

#95Tweets B26: Romans 6:23 Paul says the wages of sin is “death”, not “eternal conscious torment” – an important distinction

#95Tweets B27: In 1 Corinthians 15:22 the grammar and context are clear that all are made alive in Christ

#95Tweets B28: Galatians 6:7-8 – Paul is pretty clear that there is destruction or eternal life, not eternal conscious torment

#95Tweets B29: Phil. 2:9-11 says every knee will bend and tongue confess, not that most knees and tongues will be tortured forever

#95Tweets B30: Col 1:18-20 – God reconciles with all creation through Christ…or fails miserably to do so if eternal Hell exists

#95Tweets B32: More in the Epistles – 1 Cor 1:18, 2 Cor 4:3, Phil 3:19, Thess 5:3, Heb 10:27, 10:39, 12:29 – still no torment

#95Tweets B33: And more – James 1:15, 4:12-14, 5:20; 2 Peter 2:6, 2:10-12, 3:7 and 10 – sin = death and destruction; not torment

#95Tweets B34: The Bible writers’ worldview does not have a place for the default immortality of a disembodied “soul”

#95Tweets B35: The NT culminates in a new Heaven and new earth where there is no longer suffering – where is the torture exactly?

#95Tweets B36: Almost every verse (all but maybe 2) taken to refer to “Hell” talks of destruction very clearly, and not of eternal torment at all

#95Tweets #Bible: For all of these reasons and many more, the Bible clearly does not teach a Hell of eternal torment.

 

The Tweeting-Room Floor

Those are all the tweets as we posted them, put back in their categories. What follows is what we called “The Tweeting-Room Floor” – ones that we cut for various reasons. One of the challenges, particularly in the Biblical section, was combining texts and arguments so that we could be more efficient. Taking each passage that we wanted to use individually, we could easily have had 95 tweets based only on Bible verses.

Some were cut because they were weak, or weaker than ones nearby, or could be combined, or didn’t fit with our ultimate plan for putting them out there. If you would like to argue some of these, and we’re sure many of you will, please stick to the ones listed above.

In the Epistles, sin = death and destruction, not eternal torment – Rom 1:32, 2:12, 6:23, 9:22 – no eternal torment (1/3)

Nor can we account for those who hear a ‘false’ Gospel, or who unknowingly have wrong beliefs or practices

Eternal Hell is far worse than the worst human calamities: the Inquisition, the Holocaust, Soviet labor camps, etc.

With a doctrine of eternal Hell we cannot really account for those born before Jesus

Eternal Hell cannot really account for those who never hear the Gospel, which is almost entirely an accident of birth

This means that a vast number of people supposedly tormented in Hell were doomed at random

There is nothing in the mostly-apocryphal story of Satan to explain how he would become such an avid torturer

Jude 1:6-11 “everlasting” is defined as “until final judgement”; then sinners compared to animals who simply perish (1/3)

Jude continues 12-13 with imagery of emptiness, futility, twice dead, fruitlessness, etc. Not eternal torment (2/3)

Jude 1:7 compares fate of sinners to Sodom and Gomorrah – no eternal torment, just destruction (3/3)

Eternal Hell makes all of God’s talk of salvation in the OT into nonsense at best, lies at worst

Adam and Eve are not warned about Hell – seems like a big deal, and something they’d want to warn us about

Neither Sheol, Tartarus, Gehenna, or Hades are the Hell of popular imagination and theology

Jesus uses the example of the tower of Siloam in Luke 13:3-5 – the example is of perishing, not torment

“Hel” in Norse mythology, presides over a realm of the same name, and receives a portion of the dead

In the Gospel of John 10:24-30, God’s judgement looks like death rather than life – not eternal torment

At least 18,250,365 human beings sent to be tortured for eternity in a single year – the pop. of Shanghai or Mozambique (in the years since we first posted, I actually forgot where we got this number, so I cut it and replaced it)

Conclusion

We’ve already said a lot. If we were convinced that the doctrine of eternal Hell was necessary to Christianity, or even strongly supported, then we would have to become misotheists. We cannot possibly worship a God who permits an eternal realm of torment to exist, and would actually have to do all we could to undermine belief in that God.

Fortunately, the doctrine of Hell is merely an infection, albeit one that has been spreading corruption throughout the Body of Christ for a long time. It is indefensible on ethical, theological and Biblical grounds, and it is time to lance the wound and heal. There is no Hell, no good that comes from teaching a Hell of eternal conscious torment, and a great deal of evil that comes from it.

There. Is. No. Hell.

Thank God, and good riddance.

The Apostolic Council and the General Assembly

Presented without Scriptural proof-texts for our reading enjoyment.

Back in the day, as I understand it, there was a lot of arguing about whether non-Jews could be followers of Christ.  There was the establishment position – definitely not, no way, no how.  This was the position of the Apostles who knew Christ in life as far as we know, and it was the position of the Christian leaders in Jerusalem when Paul was alive and preaching.

On the other side, you had Paul, and a few others who agreed with him.  They thought there was room for Gentiles to be followers of Christ.  They did not know Jesus when he was alive, as far as we know (Paul was the “apostle” who broke from the normative definition, since he was someone who never met Christ as a living person and yet considered himself a “witness”) but they felt that Jesus was calling Gentiles to come and follow.
Now, as the Peter and Cornelius story points out, the anti-Gentile folks had Scripture on their side.  The chosen people were the chosen people.  That’s about it.  The rules were pretty darn clear, and they were very, very old.  What God has made clean, do not make unclean.  There is no room in God’s realm for the unclean.
But then a little problem – God comes to Peter and says “You know that unclean stuff?  Its clean now.  Get over it.”  Peter, of course, tests this new teaching out in his relationship with Cornelius, a Gentile, just the kind of person that the leadership of the early movement felt was so undesirable.  Peter hears from God, goes to meet Cornelius, and changes his mind (or his heart if you prefer, or his theology, or his doctrine, or his orthodoxy, or his orthopraxis, or all of the above).
There are a lot of angry people who could quote a lot of Scripture which would contradict what Peter did.  But he was called by God, and after testing it himself, it made sense and seemed to be the right thing to do.  And you know what?  Peter had some Scripture on his side too.  Imagine that.
The result of this was that there were a bunch of big fights (or really, little fights that were a big deal).  So everybody got together in Jerusalem to work things out.  They decided that there would be two gospels – the gospel of the circumcision and the gospel of the uncircumcision.   (I don’t think Blogger takes greek fonts, so you’ll have to look those up yourself).  Two gospels!  Can you believe it?  One was the traditional gospel and one of them was, basically, Paul’s, and now Peter’s after he had his own vision and made his own decision.
Of course, now we take it for granted that Gentiles can be Christians.  In fact, things have changed so much that Christian = Gentile, from a Jewish point of view.  How things have changed!  Who would’ve thought?  What the great majority of the very first Christians, who knew Jesus personally, thought was absolutely correct we now take to be obviously wrong.  Incredible stuff, here.  Incredible.
I bring this up because I think there is something in there, perhaps, for our own fight over whether homosexuals can be followers of Christ, whether we can accept them as equals and recognize God’s call in their lives.   One side, the side currently in authority in most Churches, has strong cleanliness issues with homosexuality, and they have some Scripture they can quote (homosexuals are as bad as shellfish, after all).  This sounds familiar to me, does it seem familiar to anyone else?  And yeah, I get that unclean is also a moral judgement – it was for shellfish too.
On the other side are people who say they are hearing from God, that they are seeing God calling people to service in the Church beyond being tolerated on the fringes.  They are testing this out themselves and finding – holy of holies! – these people are so much more than just their sexual orientation, and they are so clearly called by God it is like being slapped in the forehead when you see it.
So, maybe, we all gather, and somehow, we find a way to make room for both positions.  We work things out at least as well as the early Church tried to work them out.
Because here’s the thing.  Two thousand years later, we are all Gentiles.  Paul’s position, Peter’s position, won out.  It took time, but the truth was made clear in time.  And now, of course, we can’t imagine things differently.
Maybe we can let that happen this time.  Maybe we can take the time to really see what is true, what is right, rather than screaming at each other about it, rather than making absurd declarations of war, of disaster, or schism, or the falling sky.
And in the meantime, we find a way to mutually respect, to allow room.  In disagreeing, we are participating in the great salvation history of great disagreements, in Scripture and after we closed the canon, to this very day.  It happened in ancient Israel, in the early Church, and it happens now.  It is who we are, in part at least.
If I can figure this stuff out, so you can anyone, so the only excuse is that we’re too invested in our position being right, at the expense of our brothers and sisters, to contemplate some third way that actually makes room for God to be glorified.
Have we, in two thousand years, learned anything?

The Denial of Death

(A cautionary note – I am not a Becker expert at all, but I have read The Denial of Death and some articles by Becker and by the people who continue his work. It remains the best way I currently have of trying to understand the explosive responses to GA this year.)

My last post broke my previous record for most comments ever – but I realize that all of the comments are from five or six people. I also think that whatever ‘conversation’ was going on in the comments thread lost hope for progress a few days ago. Hence, another post, and I don’t guarantee any further responses to the last comment thread. Read it if you want to get a great example of a half dozen people frustratedly talking past each other.

I said in the aforementioned comments that I would talk about why I think conservatives are so worked up over what happened at General Assembly. If you haven’t heard, what happened is that evil liberals destroyed Christianity forever. They denied Christ, burned Bibles, tortured babies, forced people to marry goats, declared themselves terrorists, and did all of this while innocent conservatives wept bitter tears and begged them to stop committing such atrocities. But alas! The purity of the conservatives was not enough to sway the baby-torturing liberal hordes, who proceeded to eviscerate Presbyterianism for all eternity. Now, all that is left is to watch it hemorrhage and die a slow, lingering death. (This is sarcasm, internetland)

At least, that’s the impression you get when you read blog posts about it.

What really happened, the two things that keep getting mentioned, which both of course have to do with THE GAY, are that the GA voted to get rid of the Authoritative Interpretation regarding homosexuality and the Church, and also voted to amend the Book of Order so that “amendment B” (the anti-gay-ordination one) would be omitted.

You can read about it all here if you want.

The response to these two actions, from their opponents, has been… has seemed absurd to me. At the very least, genuinely amazing. The removal of the Authoritative Interpretation takes effect immediately, whereas the change in “amendment B” needs to be ratified by a majority of the Presbyteries. But to read some of the responses to GA, you’d think the baby-torturing was true. You’d think that this was the end of the Presbyterian church, forever.

There is all kinds of extreme and frankly offensive language coming out of this turn of events. The commissioners are accused of all kinds of moral and intellectual failings. They are ascribed false and even infernal motives. People say they are leaving the church for this reason, that this is the worst GA in the history of the PCUSA. You get the idea.

At first I was baffled by the extremity of the language, but then I remembered my Ernest Becker, and I realized that the extremity came from the fact that ordaining homosexuals is messing with the conservative immortality project.

The basic gist of Becker’s theory, now called Terror Management Theory, is that human beings are motivated by their awareness of the threat of death to invest in belief systems that stave off this anxiety by offering a form of immortality. When these “immortality projects” are threatened, the terror of death surfaces and causes rapid escalation. This is why, for example, a person will murder another person for a flag, or why the Inquisition happened. The fear of death is transferred to the fear of something we can lash out against – the other, who is threatening our belief system.

Now, it is very difficult to parse out the various parts of an immortality project. It is all caught up together, and a threat to part of it is often perceived as a threat to all of it. I also want to be clear that this is not something that only a certain group of people do – it is something that everyone does. There is clinical evidence that ‘terror management’ is universal across cultures, economic strata, and so on. It just so happens that equality for homosexuals is a threat to the conservative immortality project and not to the liberal one. I would say that, in general, George W. Bush and everything he says and does are threats to the liberal immortality project, which is where you get the crap about comparing Bush to Hitler (something I have never done, but have been accused ad hominem of doing time and time again…for some reason.)

(There is also a lot more interesting stuff in Terror Management theory, but that’s not as germane to this topic.)

As I said above, the whole of an immortality project, often because so much of it is unconsciously taken on, is bound together in most cases. It is like a spiderweb – tug on even an obscure part, and the whole thing trembles, and the terror of death rears its ugly head, and provokes a disproportionate response.

I’ve already gone through the process of cutting away some of my own immortality project, even understanding that it is largely an unconscious construct that I can’t even fully grasp. I was doing this before I ever read Earnest Becker, for reasons unrelated to him or his theories. It is possible to change your system of belief, but it is painful and difficult. I did it at various times because of ethical changes in my thinking, or the realization that something I was clinging to was idolatrous. I say this only to say that it is possible to modify such beliefs, with a lot of effort, not to say that I have done it sufficiently and have no further work to do.

I realize that the homosexual issue is caught up in a lot of other issues on the surface, issues of theology and Biblical interpretation and ethics – but I think those are just the thin veneer over what is actually going on emotionally. Many of the heated response to GA I’ve read have nothing to do with cool consideration and rational discourse – they are the frantic responses of people who feel genuinely personally threatened by what is going on. They are the response to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. They are like the scrambling of passengers on a ship that is hit and is sinking.

Nothing so dramatic has happened, but saying that and trying to demonstrate that it’s true won’t have an impact on the deep-seated emotional response to a change that threatens the immortality project. It will be experienced as a threat to everything – a threat to salvation, in a word. Even when far more important decisions remain to be made, and in a world chock-full of far more threatening disagreements about Christ, morality, sex and so on, it will seem like the sky is falling, and that’s the kind of talk that we get. The sense is that if we ordain homosexuals, then everything else has to go out the window as well – all of our beliefs about God, all of Scripture, all of the confessions, all of Christian history. This what they’re saying has already happened. Its like saying the sky has already fallen, but somehow the chunks only hit the conservatives among us.

I don’t know how to rationally engage someone who is in the throes of panic, racing around looking for the nearest life-boat, whether it is the EPC or whatever else is available. I think that, for a while perhaps, the best way to respond is to patiently wait for the panic to subside. This will involve enduring a lot of really insulting language, but we’re a family, dysfunctional as we eternally are, and your family can always hurt you worse than anyone else.

I’ve opened up an ongoing conversation with a parishoner of my internship church over homosexual marriage and ordination. He and I are in polar-opposite positions, but he seems willing to talk things out with me in a patient and mutually respectful way, and I honestly always get a thrill out of that kind of interaction. I look forward to our back-and-forth. Its the kind of thing I have sometimes found through blogging, the kind of thing that actually makes this worthwhile and more than just an exercise in egotistically thinking what I write is worth reading.

(What I don’t look forward to is two more years of being told that I am destroying Christianity, but no one who knows me personally has ever said that, so that’s a comfort. At least these are the accusations of strangers.)

The ship is not sinking. The sky is not falling. Christianity is not under threat. Morality is not under siege. But without time, this might be impossible for us to see.

If it were that easy to threaten our faith, it would have died out long ago. We would never have heard of Christianity, except perhaps as a footnote of the ancient world.

In the meantime, I can try to understand, in the ways that I can, what is going on here. Try to empathize, perhaps, even identify with it. There are definitely things that unreasonably threaten me, and “my side” is full of its own overreactions on other issues (I put that in quotes because “my” side changes depending on what issue you’re talking about).

And if people need to leave, then they need to leave. We’ve schismed before over “moral” issues, over “clear, Biblical” stances, and we’ll probably schism again. We’re Protestants after all. Schism is what we do. And morality is a conversation that changes over time, as is Biblical interpretation, as are all human endeavors. This just…seems to be how it goes. I don’t have a more eloquent way of putting it.

A Groundswell of Chicken Littles?

Another one of my comments that rambled too long and became a regular post…
I honestly find some of the extreme conservative responses to GA unbelieveable.
Because of a 55/45 split on amendment b and homosexual ordination that we’ve known was there for 30 years at least, suddenly the loyal opposition seems to be lamenting in sack-cloth and ashes.
It hasn’t been a picnic on this side either, frankly, but for a long time we’ve been waiting and doing what we can to overturn what we think is an unjust barrier to ordination (I only say “we” because of my position – I’ve personally done precious little to help). It might look like ‘we’ “won” this year because for decades before this we’ve “lost” time and again. So, if you’re a disappointed conservative anti-homosexual person, this is what it’s probably felt for every GA for the past few decades for your pro-homosexual brothers and sisters.
I’m surprised at what’s happened – granted, surprised and happy about some of it, unhappy about other bits, but what’s really surprised me is people acting as if the earth was going to split open and the sky rain blood. As if it was a surprise that we’re a (semi) democratic denomination and that votes might not go the way you want this time around. It just leaves me shaking my head.
I understand *exactly* how it feels to lament that your denomination is doing things you feel are unjust. This isn’t anything new to any of us, frankly, and I don’t know why its being treated in Chicken Little fashion. Its like the lamenting of Bush’s re-election in 2004, except that vote has had 10,000X more impact on people’s lives than anything GA will ever do.
I just don’t see it as a collapse of all hope, or as “Christless”, as one person put it (which is quite offensive, but I’m used to being called Christless because of this one issue, or lacking morality, or any number of exaggerated garbage). We disagree, and these things go back and forth. The issue is still live, God help us, and will suck up more resources and time I don’t doubt.
I just…don’t get it.
I guess I’m just really used to being disappointed by the Powers That Be, whether its the denomination, or the government, or whatever. Maybe its a difference of expectations, I don’t know.


Now we have a lot of talk of “schism”, of the ship being hit, of disaster looming on the horizon. Well, we’ve schismed before over what was considered an issue of “Biblical morality” at the time, and we survived and reconciled. There was probably a lot of apocalyptic lamentation then as well, but God is bigger than our petty squabbles and competing misinterpretations.

How easily some people lose their much-vaunted faith in God when things don’t go their way. If God is against what was done at this GA in terms of homosexual ordination, how can it possibly prevail in the long term? And if I am correct, and God is in fact calling homosexual persons of faith to serve as deacons, elders and ministers, then what can possibly stop the march of God’s justice and mercy for all people?

The answer to both is nothing. So why the cries of anguish over this one issue? Why the hyperbole about abandoning Christ and Biblical morality? That isn’t the issue. The issue is that some of us disagree with conservatives about what it means to follow Christ and to be moral according to how the Holy Spirit and the Bible lead us. This is NOT, has NEVER BEEN a conflict of Bible vs. non-Bible, or morality vs. non-morality. It is a conflict of interpretation vs. interpretation, of morality vs. morality. You’re following God to the best of your ability and so are we. I’m sick and tired of the options being “conservative” on the one hand and “Christ-less” on the other hand. Its disrespectful and also profoundly wrong.

So yeah, this time a couple votes went the way we wanted them to. I don’t really think this means the sky is falling – just like, in years past, when ordination-related votes went the way conservatives wanted them to go, the sky didn’t fall then either. Life goes on. Our blundering will hopefully do minimal harm to the Gospel. And so it goes.

A Breath of Fresh Air

Theology Unplugged is the podcast of Reclaiming the Mind Ministries. It is a theological podcast hosted by three conservative evangelicals, and to everyone’s surprise, I recommend it for your listening pleasure and edification.

I can’t tell you how exciting it was to hear conservative evangelicals talk about new criticism, hermeneutics, and Biblical interpretation using language that is familiar to me. You can still hear them flinch and grimace whey they even say the word “liberal”, but they talk about the necessity of interpretation, they examine their own hermeneutical process, and they are wonderfully willing to ask questions in an honest and open way that, frankly, I have almost exclusively encountered among liberal/progressives.

They certainly come to some different conclusions than I would at times, but they also talk about why they come to those conclusions, rather than presenting the conclusions as objective truth from on high and everyone else as heretical. I appreciate the rigor – at least, as much rigor as you can get on a podcast. They strike me as people I could actually have a conversation with about important issues, which is rare among people who disagree.

So, if you’re conservative/evangelical, and you want a better understanding of where we liberals are coming from when we talk about Biblical interpretation and theology, this podcast is definitely worth a listen. It is also an excellent introduction to theological issues and methodology – a little limited in its outlook, but no more so than you’ll get from anyone else. I’m not saying it will convert you, but they use a lot of language and methodology that I’ve learned to use.

I actually don’t know that much about the group aside from their podcast, but the rest of what they do at Reclaiming the Mind might be worth checking out too if you’re of a conservative bent. Or otherwise, really. They seem to also identify themselves with emergent/postmodernism to some degree. I actually couldn’t straighten that out. They definitely use some postmodern methodology, but they aren’t quite consistent in how they talk about it otherwise. I haven’t listened to all of their podcast episodes, so maybe I missed that discussion.

Anyway, check it out.