Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Omni-Charateristics of God (Part 5: The Problem of Evil)

This will be my fifth post in a five part series discussing the common characteristics of God and how I see them in light of my universalism. The five parts are:
  1. Omnibenevolence (God is all-loving)
  2. Omnipresence (God is present everywhere in space and time)
  3. Omniscience (God is all-knowing, past, present, and future)
  4. Omnipotence (God is all-powerful)
  5. The Problem of Evil (The question of why, if God has the above 4 characteristics, evil exists in the universe)
In my final post in this series, I will discuss what is commonly called the Problem of Evil. Basically, why does pain and suffering exist in the world, if God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent? For me, it is the most significant problem in theology.  Before I begin writing, I wish to make one thing clear. Many philosophers and theologians have proposed solutions to these problems, and others have created counter-arguments. However, I do not wish to give an overview of these arguments. Dozens of books have been written on this subject, and I doubt I am able to do a better job than them. What I desire is to write about my personal thoughts on this dilemma from the perspective of my universalism. 

Our world is full of suffering. Natural disasters, plagues, famines, wars, and death. No individual on this planet can escape pain for his or her entire life. Yet, we are told that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving. How can this be?

In the creation story of Genesis, the Fall of Man is brought about when Adam and Eve gain the knowledge of good and evil. This is often seen to be humankind's downfall. If only Eve had obeyed God and not eaten the fruit! Yet, I feel too few people critically think about this story. What is it that separates us from other animals? Consciousness, free-will and morality. Because we are self-aware and free, we have the ability to make decisions, not on instinct, but on knowing the difference between right and wrong, good and evil. If we had not eaten the fruit of this tree, we would be innocent. But innocent is not good. For how can one be good if one does not know what good is?

Yes, the knowledge of good and evil is a burden. It makes our lives infinitely more complicated than bacteria, plants, or animals. And our ability to choose means we will choose wrong, and we will suffer. But who would honestly give up that knowledge? Theoretically, an "innocent" person could kill millions. Of course, they would not be evil, because they would not know their actions are evil. To me, the thought is terrifying. Without this choice, we cannot better ourselves. Without this choice, we cannot become more like God. I believe God knew exactly what kind of universe He was making. He knew the pain it would involve. I doubt He made this decision lightly. But He also knew the kind of creatures it would eventually create. Not ignorant robots, but human beings not only made in His image, but who learned to grow into His image.

Theoretically, God has the power to stop all suffering. Yet, I believe God gave us free-will. Truthfully, it was probably the hardest thing God has ever done, just as it is hard for any parent to send a child into the world, knowing the child will suffer. But God knows we must make these choices for ourselves for them to have any true meaning. We cannot remain children forever. God desires a relationship with beings who can understand Him, at least in some small way. And the only way God has the power to achieve this is to give up His control over us and grant us the ability to choose, the ability to learn.

Evil, however, can only be defeated by love. God's love, unlike His knowledge or His power, has no limits. Yet, it cannot prevent our current suffering. God loves us so much, He is willing to let us suffer now for a greater existence later. I realize this is probably little comfort to those in pain. What I do find comforting, however, if knowing that we do not suffer alone. God suffers with us. Every tear we shed is matched by one of His. God's love for us allowed Him to create a universe where we would learn the difference between good and evil. God's love for us allowed Him to give us free-will. God's love for us allows us to love Him back.

As a universalist, I believe God never abandons a single soul, no matter how "evil" it may be. God sees our suffering and understands our sins. He wants nothing more than to guide us toward Him. Yet He would never force us. God desires freely given love, for love forcibly taken is worthless. Evil is the absence of love, and God works tirelessly to reveal His love in a way which does not violate our free-will. Yet God does not work in vain. Although I may not understand why certain terrible events occur, I trust God to hold us through the pain. Eventually, I believe, it will be worth it. By learning the difference between good and evil, we will become more like God and truly be His children. During the painful journey, we must remember not only our destination, but the loving Father who is with us every single step of the way, who will wait until every single one of His children comes home. We must remember His promise: 

God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (Revelation 21:4)

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Omni-Charateristics of God (Part 4: Omnipotence)

This will be my fourth post in a five part series discussing the common characteristics of God and how I see them in light of my universalism. The five parts are:
  1. Omnibenevolence (God is all-loving)
  2. Omnipresence (God is present everywhere in space and time)
  3. Omniscience (God is all-knowing, past, present, and future)
  4. Omnipotence (God is all-powerful)
  5. The Problem of Evil (The question of why, if God has the above 4 characteristics, evil exists in the universe)
For my fourth post in this series, I examine God's omnipotence. The word omnipotence comes from the Latin words "omnis" (all) and "potens" (powerful, mighty). To say that God is omnipotent is to say that He is all-powerful. Similar to omniscience, saying God is omnipotent is controversial.

The first problem with omnipotence is giving it a detailed definition. What exactly do we mean when we say "God is all-powerful". Do we mean to God can do absolutely anything? Or are their "limitations" to God's power? If so, are these limitations intrinsic or are the self-imposed?

Slight warning: This post gets a bit philosophically deep. I hope I am expressing these concepts in the clearest way possible, but I realize I might not be, so if you find something confusing, it is most likely my fault. Please feel free to ask for any clarification in the comments.

The Paradox of Omnipotence:

The most obvious limitation to God's ability to do absolutely anything is formulated in the Paradox of Omnipotence. This paradox can take many forms, but most commonly appears as the question "Can God create a rock so heavy He cannot lift it?". If God cannot create such a rock, then He is not omnipotent. If He can create such a rock, then He cannot lift it. Again, He is shown not to be omnipotent. The obvious solution usually given to this issue is to formulate that God can only do things which are logically possible. God cannot create a rock He cannot lift, draw a circle whose ratio of circumference to diameter is anything but π, or any other logical impossibility. 

The limitation of God's power to logical possibilities is an intrinsic limitation. It is not that God chooses to lack the ability to do the logically impossible, but that the logically impossible is meaningless when describing what God (or anything for that matter) is able to do. Assuming God does exists, He himself would be logically consistent (since, if He wasn't, He wouldn't exist) and a logically consistent being acts only in logically consistent ways, not because of a lack of power to act otherwise, but because there is no otherwise way to act.

Overall, this solution is fairly uncontroversial and widely accepted in the most Christian denominations.While this paradox deserves genuine thought and consideration, most religious thinkers and believers do not feel it threatens God's omnipotence.

God's Nature:

Another difficulty with God's omnipotence deals with God's nature. Most belief systems assign specific characteristics to God, such as God being all-loving or God never lying. This situation presents us with three options:

1. God can, and does, violate these characteristics when He wants to. God could hate someone or God could lie if He choose to, even if He generally does not.
2. God can violate His nature if He wants to, but chooses not to. God could hate someone or God could lie, but He does not ever do something which goes against His essential nature. This would be a self-imposed limitation.
3. God cannot violate His nature even if He wanted to. It is not possible for God to hate someone or for God to lie. This would be an intrinsic limitation.

First, I will state that my personal beliefs rule out the first option. I am sure there are people who disagree with me on this, but the whole point of this series is to analyze the characteristics of God from my universalist perspective. My belief in God's infinite love for every living being means God cannot hate someone or lie to them.

This problem presents more of a challenge than the last one. While it is obvious that God cannot do anything logically impossible, the exact definition of "logically impossible" is fuzzy here. Is it logically impossible for God to go against His own nature? If so, option 3 is the solution. If not, option 2.

Personally my answer is easy: I don't know. I say this because there is no practical difference between option 2 and option 3. I believe that God does not violate His own nature. Whether this is because doing to is a logical impossibility or whether it is God's own choice is irrelevant, because the outcome is the same for both options.

God's Omnipotence vs. Human Free-Will:

To begin this section, I will state that I do believe in free-will, and my following argument is based on the assumption that free-will is true. Sometime in the future I will post on why I believe this to be so, but I do not want to make this post excessively long.

The last question I will address is the interaction between God's omnipotence and our own free-will. Does God's omnipotence violate our free-will? Before we can answer that, we must ask another question: Does violating our free-will go against God's nature?

These questions depend greatly on the definition of free-will. Obviously, humans do not have absolute free-will. For example, we do not choose the circumstance of our birth (the timing, location, our gender, our genetics, our family, etc). Many circumstances of our lives are not in our control, but in God's. In this case, God's omnipotence could be said to violate our free-will. Or we could say He does not because we have no control over those choices and, therefore, they do not fall under the category of free-will. This problem lies mostly within the realm of semantics.

However, there are many aspects of our life we do have control over. We control who we are friends with, the kind of job we have, and our personal belief system. We choose whether or not we believe in God and, if we do, what kind of God we believe in. Personally, I believe that God could violate our free-will in these circumstances, if He chose. But, I also believe that, because God is all-loving, God respects our free-will to make our own choices and therefore would not violate those choices. Our purpose in life is to learn to be good people. While there are many paths to this goal, we must choose our own path or we are nothing more than God's robots. It is our free-will which defines us as human beings. If God desires a true relationship with us, He cannot violate our free-will.

These are by no means the only arguments against omnipotence. It is a complicated topic, philosophically and religiously. I do not believe in a God who is absolutely all-powerful, for such a God defies logic. Yet I cannot actually define the limits of God's power. I do not  feel God would violate His own nature or our own free-will with His omnipotence, even if He could. I have no way to prove these propositions, they are just what I believe.

Basically, I am not comfortable giving God the label omnipotent. There are limits, both intrinsic and self-imposed, on God's power. However, His power to love us, forgive us, and heal us are infinite, and these are the powers of God I consider absolutely vital. Many religious believers make this claim, yet their theology does not support it. They point to these amazing characteristics of God with one hand, and everlasting torment for a majority of humanity with the other. It is absolutely ludicrous. God's power is not demonstrated in fear, abandonment, and torture, but patience, mercy, and above all else, love.

Sunday, October 31, 2010


About a week and half ago, I mentioned that I had not been posting as often because I had not been feeling well. I have been sick since September 2009 due to an unknown cause. It became so bad I had to take a medical leave from school. Last week, after seeing more doctors and having more tests done than I can remember, I was diagnosed with hairy cell leukemia. The first thing I will say is that my chances are very good. People rarely die from this form of cancer. After being sick for so long without a diagnosis, I'm actually happy for this knowledge. However, I will have to undergo some chemotherapy. When I started this blog a couple months ago, I was hoping to post at least 4 times a week. Unfortunately, that will not be possible for awhile.

I absolutely love writing this blog. For the first time, I feel like I am meeting and interacting with people whose have similar views on religion and God as myself. The knowledge that I am not alone in my unorthodox beliefs is extraordinarily comforting. For the time being, my goal will be to post at least once a week. But, if I disappear for awhile, don't assume I'm gone for good. I enjoy writing this blog way too much to give it up permanently.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

What Does it Mean to Love Our Enemies?

Several weeks ago, Richard Beck of Experimental Theology made a post that I have not been able to stop thinking about. He talked about the disconnect between the love Christians preach to the love Christians practice. The reason I appreciated this post so much is it put into precise words a phenomena which I had difficulty describing, but whose existence helped drive me away from Christianity.

I grew up going to conservative Southern Baptist churches and love was frequently the topic of sermons. This included God's love for humans, our love for God, and our love for each other. It was the last one which bothered me. Countless times I was reminded that Jesus said "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:43-44).

No matter what happened, we were to love our enemies. No matter how we felt, we were to love our enemies. No matter how they insulted us, stole from us, or physically harmed us, we were to love our enemies.

In words, it sounded great. It still does. But I did not see it practiced. At least, I did not see it practiced in any substantial form. What I repeatedly saw felt more like judgment. Anyone whose views or lifestyle did not conform to the church's was demonized. Unfortunatly, I experienced much of this personally, from my step-father. Liberal politicians on the nightly news were accused of murder and sexually deviancy. Homosexuals and feminists were blamed for destroying families. Even strangers were targets. If someone cut him off on the road, the string of insults that would follow could be rather nasty. Yet, when I would ask why he hated these people, I would always get them same reply: "I don't hate them. I'm a Christian. I love them."

So what exactly was this love? How could love allow for such seeming cruelty? In his post, Beck wrote that:

"As best I can tell, [loves] means the following: To love someone is to wish that they go to heaven."

Personally, I felt it had even a narrower definition. To love someone is to wish they would convert to Christianity (and, of course, to claim conservative our views). To love someone means to proselytize them, to "save" their soul. It did not mean to truly listen to them. It did not mean to learn about their life and to have compassion for their unique sufferings. It did not mean to forgive them when they actually harmed you (since I do not believe mere disagreement on political or social issue can usually be classified as "harm").

Love became some strange ideal, something that existed only in theory, not a concrete action with practical value. 

As a universalist, I believe God's love for us is not only unconditional, but involved. It is not just an emotion He possesses for us, but an action He directs at each one of us individually. He supports us during periods of suffering. He teaches us lessons throughout our life to forge us into better people. He even forgives us when we screw up, and helps us return to the correct path. God's love is NOT passive, and ours should not be either.

For me, to genuinely love your enemy can be quite hard. Our first instinct is towards anger or revenge. But love demands it must be towards understanding and forgiveness. People injure others when they have been hurt themselves: they are suffering, so they force others to suffer. Love stops this viscous cycle. To love your enemy represents that you have a profound desire to help end their suffering NOW, not a hope they will be blissful in some distant afterlife. It means you must see past the exterior of anger, greed, jealously, and hate, to an interior person who is in deep pain, allowing you to forgive their transgressions.

How often have you accidentally hurt someone when you have been preoccupied with your own pain? I know I have. Maybe that guy who cut you off today just lost his job. Or the woman who is rude to you is preoccupied with how she is going to afford food for her children this week. Or the person who roughly bumps into you and walks away without apologizing just found out their child has a terminal disease. If we truly knew the reasons behind people's bad actions, I believe we would be sympathetic more often than judgmental or wrathful.

Unfortunately, we cannot see people the way that God can. In some ways, it might be easier for Him to love us than for us to love each other. He sees our pain and suffering, so He understands why we lash out at others. We do not have that luxury. When we love our enemies, forgive them, and offer them our help, it means we are giving them the benefit of the doubt. They might have hurt us, but that does not mean they are bad people. It means we sympathize with their hidden pain, because we too are human. It means we recognize that love is not just a dream for the future, but a healing force in the present.

Monday, October 18, 2010

My Bookshelf (Sorta)

Lately, I've seen many of the blogs I read posting pictures of their bookshelf. Unfortunately, this would be rather difficult for me to do. I love books, and have 4 large bookcases, so if I took a picture of every shelf, it would be almost 20 pictures. Instead, I picked out 15 of my favorite fiction books to share (I posted many of my favorite non-fiction books here)

  • The Hitchhicker's Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
  • God's Debris (Scott Adams)
  • God is Dead (Ron Currie Jr.)
  • Notes from the Underground (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
  • Book (Robert Grudin)
  • Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
  • The Cyberiad (Stanislaw Lem)
  • Peace on Earth (Stanislaw Lem)
  • Life of Pi (Yann Martel)
  • A Dirty Job (Christopher Moore)
  • 1984 (George Orwell)
  • Death: A Life (George Pendle)
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Tom Stoppard)
  • Cat's Craddle (Kurt Vonnegut)
  • The Sirens of Titan (Kurt Vonnegut)

The Harassment of Gay Children and Teens

First, I wish to apologize for my lack of posting lately. I have been sick for awhile now with a so far unknown illness, and there are times when I am just not able to write everyday.

The past few weeks, I have seen a flood of heartbreaking stories about children and teenagers taking their own lives after being relentlessly bullied, often because they were (or perceived as being) gay. Every single news story has brought tears to my eyes.

Although I personally am straight, two of my  three best friends are gay. Growing up, I saw them struggle, not only with bullies at school, but with their own families. In middle school, my male friend (having come out only to me and my two other best friends) would continue "dating" girls so the popular kids wouldn't call him a "fag" or "homo" all the time. In high school, we stayed up with my female friend all night when she was devastated at her father's reaction to meeting her first serious girlfriend (she is getting married to this women in the spring, and I couldn't be happier for her).

Because I have seen firsthand what such hate can do, these stories don't just make me cry, they absolutely infuriate me. The adults who attend churches where homosexuality is condemned and who lecture their children on how homosexuality is evil,  and who then claim they are not to blame for these suicides because they never explicitly told their children to torment their gay peers, infuriate me. The people who protest laws meant to protect homosexual and transsexual children and teens from harassment, claiming they violate their rights of free speech and freedom of religion, infuriate me. And the teachers who do nothing or who blame the victim for being "different" (which I realize is probably a small minority of teachers, but I have encountered them), infuriate me.

Homosexuality is not a choice, just as heterosexuality is not a choice. It is something programmed into our DNA, just as is our skin-color, gender, and height. Your religious beliefs do not give you the right to torment someone into suicide for a characteristic they have no control over. It is especially sickening in Christians. Do they truly believe Jesus would have treated homosexuals so poorly, especially the children? Dan Savage (who started the It Gets Better Project) wrote about this as well, in extremely blunt words:

"The kids of people who see gay people as sinful or damaged or disordered and unworthy of full civil equality—even if those people strive to express their bigotry in the politest possible way (at least when they happen to be addressing a gay person)—learn to see gay people as sinful, damaged, disordered, and unworthy. [...] And while you can only attack gays and lesbians at the ballot box, nice and impersonally, your children have the option of attacking actual gays and lesbians, in person, in real time. [...]You don’t have to explicitly “encourage [your] children to mock, hurt, or intimidate” queer kids. Your encouragement—along with your hatred and fear—is implicit. It’s here, it’s clear, and we’re seeing the fruits of it: dead children."

Despite advances in the past couple decades, homosexuality in many areas of the US is not tolerated and homosexuals themselves are not welcome. A gay child growing up in such an environment is irreparably damaged. Their own parents teach them they are "wrong" and that God is angry with them. Are we really surprised that some of them have taken their own lives?

The central tenet of my beliefs is God is love. God loves everyone absolutely equally. Personally, I do not believe God hates, or even disapproves, of homosexuals. Why would God create gay people and then punish them for expressing their unchangeable homosexuality, when He places no such restraints on heterosexuals? It makes no sense.

We must change the attitudes of society. Children are dying by their own hands because they are so terrorized by a world that hates them for who they are. It's shameful and disgusting. We must change, or more children will die and we will have no one but ourselves to blame.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Omni-Characteristics of God (Part 3: Omniscience)

This will be my third post in a five part series discussing the common characteristics of God and how I see them in light of my universalism. The five parts are:
  1. Omnibenevolence (God is all-loving)
  2. Omnipresence (God is present everywhere in space and time)
  3. Omniscience (God is all-knowing, past, present, and future)
  4. Omnipotence (God is all-powerful)
  5. The Problem of Evil (The question of why, if God has the above 4 characteristics, evil exists in the universe)
For my third post in this series, I continue with God's omniscience. The word omniscience comes from the Latin words "omnis" (all) and "scientia" (knowledge). God's omniscience is His quality of being all-knowing, i.e., God knows everything in both space and time. For me, it is the most challenging characteristic of God to understand. Even worse, God's omniscience is perhaps His most controversial aspect, since it seems to be in conflict with the idea of human free-will. Despite these issues, I believe God's omniscience to be vital in His relationship to His creation.

The reason I consider God's omniscience so problematic to understand is because it is virtually impossible for a finite human to relate to such a characteristic. The other three characteristics in the this series (omnibenevolence, omnipresence, and omnipotence) are easier to comprehend, even if unattainable for humans. Omnibenevolence is just unconditional love extended to all people, and most humans experience unconditional love through the parent-child relationship. Omnipotence, while far beyond human capability, is easy to imagine, and frequently bestowed upon literary, television, or film characters. Omnipresence is formidable, but still within the limits of comprehension. Omniscience, though, is downright inconceivable.

When you genuinely begin to ponder omniscience, the shear size of the information in the universe is overwhelming. Everything truly means everything- the actions and thoughts of all living beings down to the nerve impulses in their brains, the changing positions of all the stars in the planets in all the galaxies, the location of every single proton and electron...the list is practically infinite. My comparably small mind cannot even begin to fathom the sheer amount of information an omniscient being would have to know, let alone how all this knowledge is comprehended.

However, it is not this perplexity which makes God's omniscience so fascinating. It is how God's omniscience appears to clash with the concept of free-will. Before I begin to discuss this, I will state that I plan to argue this from premise that free-will is factual, because I believe it to be. Sometime later, I will post on exactly why I accept free-will over determinism.

The argument that free-will conflicts with God's omniscience generally takes this form: If God is all-knowing, He knows all of your future actions before you are even born. Therefore, you cannot change those actions, because that would violate God's omniscience, which is impossible. Therefore, you do not have free-will.

To be honest, I do not have a quick answer for this paradox. Many of them have been proposed, some of them philosophically complex. Personally, I believe, there are two main options: God has what philosophers call "middle knowledge" or that God has the potential to be omniscient, but He deliberately limits His omniscience in order to give His creation free-will.

Middle-Knowledge: To say that God has "middle-knowledge" means that God knows how an individual will act beforehand because of His knowledge of the individual, but the choice behind the action still belongs to the individual. When you know a person intimately (their previous actions, thoughts, biases, dreams, fears, needs, desires, etc) you can accurately know what action they will take. Even humans can do this with our close family and friends: we know them well enough that we can know how they will act in specific situations, but that does not mean their action was predestined. Because God knows us perfectly (i.e., He possess all knowledge about us, even what we keep secret from everyone else), it is possible He knows how we will react in all situations without affecting our free-will.

Deliberate Limitation: To say that God deliberately limits His omniscience means that God could selectively stop Himself from gaining certain bits of knowledge, even if He has the ability to do so. While God might know some future happenings (like, the next time Mt. Vesuvius will have a major eruption or the next star in the Milky Way galaxy to go supernova) he would stop himself from knowing future human actions (like whether I will murder somebody in the future or whether an individual will ever choose to believe in Him). In this situation, God would know everything accept the things that, if he knew them, would threaten our free will.

These are by no means the only explanations, but I personally believe they are the most reasonable. Nevertheless, I do not claim to have a specific answer to this question. The only answer I can give is "I don't know". What I do know is that, regardless of how God's omniscience functions, I believe God knows us better than any other person on Earth, including ourselves. It is this knowledge which allows God to be so forgiving to each of us. God is compassionate when we make mistakes and sin because He knows why we make them. He understands our pain, fear, and anger and the reasons we lash out at others. This does not mean he approves our actions or that remorse for the pain we cause is unnecessary. What is does mean is that, no matter how badly we screw up, God is still there for us, God still forgives us, and God still loves us.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Book Review: Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama

I just finished reading Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. Before deciding to take the year off from school, I was supposed to take a class on Buddhism this fall and bought several of the books on the class reading list to read over the summer, including this one.

I found reading this book challenging, mostly because of the horrific descriptions of the oppression, torture, and murder of Tibetans by the Chinese given by the Dalai Lama. Despite the enormity of the human rights violations that have taken place in Tibet since the 1950's (and continue to this day), I have heard little about it in either the news or at school. To be honest, I am unsure why that is. It is common to see stories on atrocities committed in the Middle East, yet we hear nothing on Tibet. At least for the United States, this is probably influenced by our large economic ties to China.

However, I greatly admired the Dalai Lama himself. Throughout the book, he never insults an individual, even if their actions against his people were terrible. All the way up to Chairman Mao, the Dalai Lama always attempted to point out the best qualities in people. Although he never explicitly related his views on human nature, my impression was that he believed that every person is inherently good, a belief we would share.

I also admired his tolerance. While he discussed his Buddhist beliefs in great depth, he also praised the beliefs of other religious traditions and thought that these traditions had the same potential for helping people as Buddhism. When it comes to women, he encouraged their participation as leaders both in the Buddhist religion and in his own government in exile.

His courage and endurance are inspiring. His life has been filled with great suffering, yet he has never stopped working to help his people in Tibet, despite how difficult and sometimes dangerous his mission is. He is a truly selfless man. 

My favorite quote is a prayer the Dalai Lama uses to end his autobiography, saying it gives him "great inspiration and determination":

For as long as space endures,
And for as long as living beings remain,
Until then may I, too, abide
To dispel the misery of the world.

I loved this prayer because it can speak to a person no matter when religion they practice. For me, it means our goal must always be to help others and to selflessly work to eliminate all suffering on Earth. Sometimes, I think people become so caught up in the dogma of their religious beliefs and trying to live "right" that they forget this goal, yet it is too important and vital to ignore.

Friday, October 1, 2010


For the first two decades of my life, prayer was not important to me. When I was young and we prayed in church, I would go through the motions like everyone else. My eyes would be closed, my head would be bowed, and I would attempt not to fidget too much. If the pastor was leading us in prayer, I might even mentally repeat his words in my head, but rarely did I actually pray. Usually, I was bored and just wanted the service to be over soon.

Sporadically, however, I might break the pattern and ask God for material possessions, like a new set of Legos or whatever other toy I had recently been begging for. Nothing I ever prayed for then was serious. Prayer also was never scheduled for me. I had many friends who prayed with their families before bed every not, but this was not a tradition my family followed. Nor did we pray before meals, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Prayer belonged solely to the realm of church.

When I was slightly older, and the teachings of my church began to have more of an impression on my young mind, I was conflicted about prayer. On one hand, I knew I was supposed to pray to God. Good Christians prayed to God all the time, right? If you did not pray to God, how would you prove you were a Christian and, therefore, get into heaven? Yet, I absolutely loathed it. God scared me. Why would I want to pray to Him? At the time, I was convinced God hated me. Why would He listen to my prayers if I was such a bad person? Time and time again I would try to conquer my fear. I thought if I prayed more and promised God I loved Him, he wouldn't hurt me. But in my heart I knew those promises weren't true, and even worse, I knew that God knew they weren't true.

Once I was able to cease attending church, my weak attempts at prayer stopped too. I felt no desire for God or communication with Him. Actually, I desperately yearned not to believe in Him. 

Recently, however, prayer has become absolutely vital to my life. Universalism brought about a radically new view of God and a great longing to communicate with Him. I began to pray daily. Usually, my prayers take place at night. I'm a night owl (if you couldn't tell by the timestamps on my posts) and that is when I feel the most comfortable.

For me, prayer is like a conversation with God. I actually talk to God. Putting this into words actually makes it sound kind of stupid, but I talk to God about being upset, or angry, or scared. I talk to God about the worries I have about my friends and family. I talk to God about my frustration at being sick. I even talk to God about theology. I ask for patience and strength. I ask for understanding. I ask for guidance to become a better person. Rarely do I ask for something material.

The best part though, is I do feel God listening to me. It is when I pray that I am best able to perceive the pure love of God, and it never ceases to amaze me how strong His love really is. Before, prayer bored me or scared me. Now, I can talk to God for hours and not even realize the time slipping by. Nothing in the whole world makes me feel like I do when I pray. God feels my pain with me and sharing it with Him is extraordinarily comforting. Often, I cannot even say my prayers have an end, for I drift off to sleep immersed in my connection with my Father.

It is through prayer that I am starting to understand the nature of God, as much as a human possibly could. It is the foundation of my relationship with God, it is how I most directly experience the love of God, and it has become the best part of my day and an integral part of my life.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Capital Punishment

Recently, I've seen a rash of news articles considering capital punishment. The idea of capital punishment is absolutely abhorrent to me, no matter what the crime. The thought of purposely killing another human being strapped to a table makes me physically ill. It has become so awful that I must force myself not to read any of the article articles concerning an execution.

I am aware scores of people would emphatically disagree with my feelings. Those people on death row have committed horrific crimes, almost always murder. The loved ones of the victims will never be able to fully recover from their loss and I cannot blame them for desiring revenge on these criminals. And I have no objection to life sentences for murders.

Despite this, I cannot support capital punishment. To me, it is the equivalent of another murder. It fixes nothing. It cannot bring the victim(s) back to life. It cannot heal the pain their death caused. All it does is create more people who have lost a loved ones, for, no matter how evil their actions are, murderers still have families and friends, and their deaths will also cause great pain.

What is worse is the absolute indifference from the justice system. In Texas, several death row inmates have been denied permission to introduce new DNA evidence that could exonerate them. Their lives are viewed as worthless and no one cares enough to even absolutely determine their guilt. It is sickening that these criminals lives are seen as so expendable. They become nothing more than a statistic.

From a practical view, in the United States it costs more to execute a criminal than to leave them in prison for the rest of their lives. It is also an unfair penalty, with minorities predisposed to be sentenced to death than caucasians for similar crimes. A multitude of studies have demonstrated that the existence of a death penalty does not deter crime. Yet none of these rational reasons have a substantial influence on my own opinion. The strongest instinct inside me tells me that executing a human being is deeply and profoundly wrong.

Most would presumably question my intense feelings for murders and I doubt my opinion is widely held. How can I feel sick over people who have committed heinous crimes and never contributed positively to society in any way? They ask "where is your sympathy for the victim?". Or "what about justice?"

Well, my sympathy for the victim is just as strong. But I cannot, and will not, eradicate my sympathy and compassion for the murderers. The Bible itself tells us to love our enemies. As a society, we should do everything we can to help these people. A majority of them  have been neglected or abused as children. This by no means excuses their crimes. But it does mean that we should be aware of the factors that can put individuals on the path toward a life of crime.

As for justice, I think that life in prison serves the place of justice. They will be punished for their entire lives. Execution is not necessary for justice to be accomplished, nor will it reverse the agony the criminal has produced. Only God has that ability.

I deeply believe in the infinite worth in every single person, no matter how terrible their crimes. I have always felt this way, but my feelings have intensified the past year. I believe in a God who is love. If God loves every person equally, how can I be justified in feeling that the taking of a life by execution is justice? How do I know that, if given the chance, these people might change? Shouldn't they be given that chance? 

The Religious Ignorance of Americans

The Pew Religious Quiz has been making headlines today. To be honest, I did not find the results surprising. When debating with Christians about theology, I have been utterly shocked at the lack of knowledge of their own tradition. I can at least understand being ignorant of other religions. While sad, I do not necessarily expect people to be experts in ideas they have never been exposed to. But how can you be so ignorant of your own beliefs? Frankly, it's pathetic. How do you expect people to take your beliefs seriously when you yourself don't understand them?

The worst part for me was when I was looking at some of the details of the study. The first chart breaks down how different religious groups did on particular kinds of questions. Protestants as a whole got 6.5 out of 12 questions on The Bible and Christianity. Wow. Barely over 50% competence on subjects their entire life is supposed to revolve around.

A short quiz with 15 questions was also included. I got all 15 right. Taking it made me even more incredulous of the results because I found it incredibly easy. That level of ignorance in a country so diverse as the United States is scary.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Omni-Characteristics of God (Part 2: Omnipresence)

This will be my second post in a five part series discussing the common characteristics of God and how I see them in light of my universalism. The five parts are:
  1. Omnibenevolence (God is all-loving)
  2. Omnipresence (God is present everywhere in space and time)
  3. Omniscience (God is all-knowing, past, present, and future)
  4. Omnipotence (God is all-powerful)
  5. The Problem of Evil (The question of why, if God has the above 4 characteristics, evil exists in the universe)
For my second post in this series, I continue with God's omnipresence. The word omnipresence comes from the Latin words "omnis" (all), and "praesentia" (presence), and it's literal meaning is pretty self-explanatory. Basically, it means God is everywhere. While simple enough to define, I feel the implications of God's omnipresence are deep and complex.

Personally, I believe in the concept of panentheism. Panentheism contains two aspects of God: transcendence and immanence, both of which form part of His omnipresence.

God's Transcendence-

To say God is transcendent is to say that He exists outside the physical world, away from time and space. This is the picture of God most religious people seem to have (even if they do say things like "God is with you!"). They imagine God as a distant entity, observing us, and judging us, from far away and only rarely interjecting into the world. Its almost as if God's transcendence is viewed a superlative human being with supernatural powers and a rather nasty temper.

My picture of God's transcendence is quite different. I see it as the ineffable part of God, the part that is vast consciousness we are too microscopic to comprehend in any way. It is God who is Mystery. It is the God which created the universe, with its billions of galaxies, trillions of stars and planets, and who could count every single subatomic particle He used to build it all. It is the God who designed the laws His universe is founded on, allowing everything from the Big Bang, to nuclear fusion in the core of a star, to the unique density curve of water, and the evolution of single-cells to human beings.

God's Immanence:

To say that God is immanent is to say that He completely permeates the physical universe and exists within the space and time of this universe. As I noted above, I feel this quality of God is often ignored, even if a belief in it is professed. For me, it is easy to understand this seeming paradox. During the most challenging moments of our life, God's presence can seem extraordinarily remote, almost like He is indifferent to our sufferings. At the same time, the idea that you are not important enough for God's attention is common. I cannot tell you how many times thoughts like "Out of the almost 7 billion people on Earth can God actually give a damn about me?" have crossed my mind, and I greatly doubt I am alone.

However, once self-doubt has been put away, God's immanence is more clearly seen. If God's transcendence is His Mystery, than God's immanence is His Love. It is God's immanence that allows Him to enjoy and even grow a personal relationship with each being in His creation. In His immanence, God becomes a parent and a friend, allowing us to relate to Him, instead of being overwhelmed by the vast mystery of His transcendence.

God IS with us always, even those times when we cannot perceive His presence. Even better, God is not following us around with a clipboard, taking notes and docking points every time we screw up. He is here to support us, guide us, and love us, no matter our past crimes.

Yet God's omnipresence does not end with God being with us. God is also within us. Although the most common belief about human creation is that of creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing), I believe in creatio ex deo (creation out of God). We are literally children of God, and our souls were created from God Himself. We can never be separated from God because we are made from God.

God's omnipresence encompasses His transcendence, His immanence, and His creation of us from Himself. Since omnipresence brings together aspects of God which almost seem contrary, I believe it is hardest to understand. Despite this challenge, I find great comfort as it allows us to be in awe of God's mystery, experience His Love, and know the Source from which we came and to which we will eventually return.

    Thursday, September 23, 2010

    God's Injustice

    One of the most common criticisms of universalism is that it is unjust. The lack of a form of eternal punishment, whether conscious torment or complete annihilation, means that universalists are focusing only on God's love and mercy and totally excluding His judgment.

    This criticism can be narrowed down into two schools of thought:

    First are those who equate "no eternal hell" with "no punishment". This is a simple misunderstanding. Punishment is important. Any decent parent punishes their children, and since God is the perfect parent, His punishment would be perfect. Its purpose is for correction and reconciliation, not torment.

    Second are those who believe you cannot have justice without eternal punishment. They see anything other than nonbelievers and unrepentant sinners in hell as injustice. In my opinion, this approach is completely irrational and does a huge disservice to God.

    In The Republic, the philosopher Plato, using the voice of his mentor, Socrates, creates a dialogue around the question "What is justice?" With Socrates as a guide, the characters in The Republic outline the perfect city-state modeled with justice as the centerpiece. This dialogue is eye-opening in that is proves not only that justice is difficult to define, but that it is almost impossible to create a perfectly just world.

    One of my favorite quotes from The Republic is "The highest reach of injustice is to be deemed just when you are not." (Book II). I believe this perfectly describes the god of eternal punishment. This god commits acts of unspeakable horror, all in the name of justice. Logically, it makes no sense. Finite crimes committed in a finite period of time, no matter how terrible, do not deserve infinite punishment. 

    Almost every human today considers Adolf Hitler to be the face of evil. Yet Hitler's systematic torture and murder of 7 million people is nothing, absolutely NOTHING, compared to what this god does. The current lifetime of the universe (almost 14 billion years) is infinitesimal to the amount of time this god will torture sinners and unbelievers.

    But that is not even the worst part. The worst part is that all of this is supposedly done out of love, from a god who is love.

    As I mentioned earlier, through The Republic, Plato does a wonderful job of showing you how difficult it is to define justice, and I in no way claim I know what justice is in every circumstance. Only God knows. But, I do know what love is. I know how it feels and I know how it acts. The Bible itself knows:

    Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 4-8)

    I know that God is Love, and no God who is Love could ever abandon and torture one of His children eternally, with absolutely no hope of redemption. No good human would do such a thing to their enemies, let alone anyone they truly loved. Is God worse than us? The mere thought is horrific!

    Love NEVER fails, and because God is Love, God NEVER fails. Losing even one of His children forever is failure. Not only would it be torture for the lost soul, but it would be torture to God Himself. Think about the person you love most. Could you ever be happy knowing they are being forever tortured? So how could God be happy knowing one of His children is lost eternally? Heaven cannot exist if even one soul is missing.

    Eternal hell also fixes nothing. Will a woman who has been raped feel better knowing her rapist is in hell? Or a father who has lost his only child? Maybe for awhile. But does the eternal torture of the rapist and murderer do anything to heal the woman and the father? Not a thing. It might satisfy their desire for revenge, but it serves no redeeming purpose. Their pain and anger need to be healed by reconciliation and forgiveness. Since rape and murder are acts so damaging to the victims, it is doubtful this can occur during this lifetime. But if they are ever to occur, the perpetrators themselves must also be healed and redeemed, and an eternal hell precludes this from happening.

    Justice and love are not exclusionary. On the contrary, they can exist in harmony. I believe God will eventually create justice for every singe being in the universe. But eternal hell is neither just nor loving, and it is definitely not of God. 

    Sunday, September 19, 2010

    Children and Religion

    Earlier today, I had a discussion with a good friend of mine from school. Although she grew up in Louisiana, which (according to wikipedia) has the 2nd highest rate of church attendance in the United States, her family was not religious, and she currently considers herself to be an atheist. Our discussion centered around children raised in religious homes. She feels quite strongly that children should not be exposed to religion until they are old enough to logically and rationally consider religious beliefs for themselves.

    I must admit, part of me agrees with her. Young children are impressionable. They are taught to listen to authority figures, including their parents, teachers, and religious leaders in the community. When growing up in a strict fundamentalist denomination or sect (the religion of the denomination or sect is irrelevant, although in the US, fundamentalist Christianity is the most common), questioning is taken as a sign of weakness or a lack of faith. "The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it" is a common example I constantly see on bumper stickers.

    Is it safe to expose children to such rigid thought when they do not yet have the metal capacity to make their own decisions? Especially when such thought sometimes promotes hated of other groups (nonbelievers, homosexuals, etc.) or denies scientific realities? For me, these question have an easy answer: yes. I feel it is a disservice to these children. Because these religious ideas, and the command not to question these religious ideas, are programmed in at such a young age, they are not likely to be examined rationally even as an adult. Even worse are the children who, for some reason, do not fit into their religious community. Rejection at a young age is extraordinarily damaging and I personally find a person who puts their unyielding religious beliefs before their own family disgusting.

    I call my blog "The Scientific Universalist" and fundamentalism violates both aspects of that stated belief. I believe in inclusion and I reject a literalistic interpretation of religious scripture written thousands of years ago. I believe in evolution. I believe in the Big Bang. I believe the Earth is 4.5 billion years old and that the universe is 13.7 billion years old. And I believe every person has the right to examine these scientific findings and form their own opinion on them without feeling trapped by the fundamentalist beliefs they were raised in.

    At the same time, fundamentalism makes up a minority of religious belief. A majority teaches love and respect, even if there is disagreement. Using religion, children can learn to be compassionate for those less fortunate and forgive those who harm them. Programs run by churches keep at-risk children off the street or allow children to help their community. Although all of these things can be accomplished without religion (since religion does not have a monopoly on morality and good deeds), it is no less valuable to society than secular programs of the same nature.

    As long as children are encouraged to question and change their faith, and even explore opposing ideas, I believe religion can become a positive influence in their young lives. The same is true of any kind of belief system, such as political beliefs. Children should not automatically be assigned the beliefs of their parents. Allowing them to discover their own beliefs will teach them to think critically about the world and themselves and make them into better adults.

    Friday, September 17, 2010

    The Omni-Characteristics of God (Part 1: Omnibenevolence)

    This will be my first post in a five part series discussing the common characteristics of God and how I see them in light of my universalism. The five parts are:
    1. Omnibenevolence (God is all-loving)
    2. Omnipresence (God is present everywhere in space and time)
    3. Omniscience (God is all-knowing, past, present, and future)
    4. Omnipotence (God is all-powerful)
    5. The Problem of Evil (The question of why, if God has the above 4 characteristics, evil exists in the universe)
     I begin with God's omnibenevolence, which, for me, is His most important characteristic. The word omnibenevolent comes from three Latin words: omnis (meaning "all"), bene (good/well), and volo (want).

    Basically, to say that God is omnibenevolent is to say that He is perfectly good, totally merciful, and all-loving. But how exactly do we define these three pieces of omnibenevolence and what do they mean for our relationship with God?

    Perfectly Good:

    To be perfectly good means to have no trace of evil. To be sinless. God is never jealous or selfish. He never acts out of anger. Everything God does he does for the benefit of His creation. It is God himself who decided what is good and what a person must do to be good. First, it was the 10 Commandments. Later, Jesus shortened this to "love God and your neighbor". For an individual to be good, he or she must follow God's example. Being good is what brings us closer to God.

    Totally Merciful:

    Saying God is totally merciful means that God is always willing to forgive sin. As a universalist, I take it a step further. I believe God always forgives sin. God does "not [count] men's sins against them" (2 Corinthians 5:19). God has already forgiven your sins, even the ones you have not repented or even committed. This does NOT mean repentance is not important. It is vital. Yet God's forgiving grace covers you no matter what. Mercy, as opposed to strict justice, allows us to learn compassion for others, again helping us become closer to God.

    Last, and most complexly, God's omnibenevolence means God is all-loving. God's love extends over all His creation. It is infinite. There is no way to exhaust God's love. God loves every human equally, the worst no less than the best. This love cannot be earned, it is freely given by God; it is unconditional, and does not require that the love be returned. Nothing you do will make God want to love you less or stop loving you.

    Yet love is a complicated word. What do we mean by love? How does God love?

    There are several different types of love, including:
    • Parental love: The love a parent has for a child. Often considered the closet humans can get to unconditional love.
    • Philos love:  The love between good friends with no sexual feelings.
    • Romantic love: Love between individuals which does involve sexual feelings.
    The love often used to describe God however, is called agape. In my opinion, it is a combination between parental love and philos love. God loves us unconditionally like a parent. He is our creator and sustainer, and we are His children. It is why many address Him as "Father". Yet I do not feel parental love completely represent the love of God. He is also our friend. A parent's job is to nurture, protect, and discipline, and God does these things. Yet it is in friends that we confide in. God is our confidant. He knows our every thought. He discerns our motive for every action, good and bad. He understands us far better than we understand ourselves.

    For any human to know us the way God knows us, to know every fleeting thought crossing our mind, would be terrible. How many of us entertain thoughts we do not truly mean or thoughts we would never act on?

    However, it is different with God. His unconditional love and his absolute understanding means we should not feel anxious or embarrassed that he knows us so intimately. It means we can share our hopes, dreams, fears, and problems without anxiety over being judged negatively.

    It is omnibenevolence which make God our God. It is how he creates a personal relationship with all individuals in his creation. It is why we worship Him, pray to Him. It allows Him not to be just our parent, but friend, confidant, and partner. Most importantly, it is why we trust Him and have confidence that, no matter our suffering, God is with us and will never leave us.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010

    Negative Reactions Towards Universalism

    One more time, I wish to expand my recent writings on intolerance of religious beliefs. Specifically, how intolerance is directed at universalism.

    The examples of intolerance mentioned in my last two posts were committed by a minority of believers in the religious community. But, at the risk of sounding like I have a persecution complex, I feel the dislike of universalism is more widespread (although definitely less vigorous and violent).

    Christianity in the United States is extremely diverse, with thousands of different denominations. The more liberal denominations often have adherents willing to except the validity of other religions (i.e., you do not necessarily have to be a Christian to get into heaven), yet even they usually reject universalism. Why is this?

    One theory is that universalism is perceived as "not fair". Universalism is often interpreted to mean "no punishment for the wicked". Yes, there is the "death then glory" school of universalism, with Hosea Ballou being the most well known advocate of this position. However, a majority of universalists I have encountered do not interpret universalism this way. They believe in some form of punishment for unrepentant sins, usually a type of purgatory (and the many forms that could take), using corrective punishment for rehabilitation.

    Another theory is that universalism is a threat to the familiar. When someone is raised in a particular religious tradition, it frequently becomes part of their identity and the basis of their security. They believe their path is the correct path, and all other paths lead to destruction. Universalism shuns this idea, allowing (depending on the precise type of universalism) several to almost infinite paths to salvation. Recognizing multiple options inevitably takes away power and control from the traditional churches and threatens their monopoly on the truth. Since humans find comfort in being convinced their beliefs are the "true" ones, a system claiming otherwise would easily attract derision.

    The final, and most disturbing, theory on universalism's threat is that there are religious believers who despise, whether secretly or openly, people with opposing religious beliefs and who feel no regret at the thought of them suffering in hell. According to some Christian theologians:

    •  "The blessed in the heavenly realm will watch the torments of the damned so that their beatitude will please them all the more." (Thomas Aquinas)
    • "At that greatest of all spectacles, that last and eternal judgment how shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness…". (Tertullian)
    • "The view of the misery of the damned will double the ardor of the love and gratitude of the saints of heaven." (Jonathan Edwards)
    While few today would be willing to say this in such bold terms as the three men above, the sentiment remains. They feel nonbelievers deserve eternal hellfire and plan to enjoy the sufferings of those not lucky enough to be saved as an added bonus of their own redemption.

    Universalism, even when framed within conservative Christianity, is a radical idea. The Catholic Church even considers it heresy. When fear of hell is used to control people's religious beliefs, radical ideas are painted as a threat to their salvation. Who can blame them? If they truly believe that becoming a universalist gives you an express ticket to hell, you cannot blame them for their dislike. On the other hand, with those who delight in everlasting hell (but only for others, of course),  universalism becomes not a threat to their salvation, but to their eternal happiness.

    Either way, this intolerance arises from the teaching of an eternal hell. It uses fear to force people into unquestioning compliance, can twist minds into sickening glee at the sufferings of others, and drives away those seekers whose heart cannot mesh their desire for a loving God with His supposedly eternal and fiery torture chamber. It is a doctrine which, in my opinion, has done more damage to both God and religion than any other.

    Religious Reading List

    Here is a reading list of the religious books I have enjoyed over the past couple of years, organized by category. In the near future, I plan to start reviewing some of the individual books in depth.

    Universalism Books:
    • Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? (Hans Urs von Balthasar)
    • Destined for Salvation (Kalen Fristad)
    •  If God is Love (Philip Gulley and James Mulholland)
    • If Grace is True (Philip Gulley and James Mulholland)
    • Furious Pursuit: Why God Will Never Let You Go (Tim King and Frank Martin)
    • Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God (Dennis, Shelia, and Matthew Linn)
    • The Gospel of Inclusion: Reaching Beyond Religious Fundamentalism to the True Love of God and Self (Rev. Carlton Pearson)
    • God Is Not a Christian, Nor a Jew, Muslim, Hindu...: God Dwells with Us, in Us, Around Us, as Us (Rev. Carlton Pearson)
    • Spiritual Terrorism: Spiritual Abuse from the Womb to the Tomb (Boyd Purcell)
    • The Inescapable Love of God (Thomas Talbott)
    • The Golden Thread: God's Promise of Universal Salvation (Ken Vincent)
    Science and Religion: 
    • The Language of God: A Scientist Present Evidence of Belief (Francis Collins)
    • Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution (Kenneth Miller)  
    • The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality (Dalai Lama) 
    General Religion:
    • City of God (St. Augustine)
    • Confessions (St. Augustine)
    •  The God We Never Knew (Marcus Borg)
    • The Varieties of Religious Experience (William James)
    • The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins)
    • Letter to a Christian Nation (Sam Harris)
    If anyone has any recommendations of other religious books (no matter what type), I'd be happy to hear them. I'm up for reading pretty much anything.

    Wednesday, September 15, 2010

    Accidental Ads

    I apologize to anyone who visited the site of the past couple days who ended up seeing a ton of ads on the sidebar and below the posts. I was modifying my layout and somehow accidentally ended up with several of them on my page, but for some reason, I couldn't see them myself. They should all be removed now.

    Religious Intolerance

    I would like to expand some of the ideas I addressed in my last post. In the United States, especially this time of the year, intolerance of Muslims is the most visible form of religious discrimination, but it is not alone.

    One thing I love about the United States is its diversity. We are surely a melting pot, and I think we are blessed to live in a country so heterogeneous.

    A few months after his election, President Obama said:

    "One of the great strengths of the United States is ... we have a very large Christian population --we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values."

    The sentiment expressed in the quote is noble but, sadly, I am not always sure it is true. There are a multitude people in the US who presume the country "belongs" only to them and that those other groups whose ideas and beliefs are not aligned with their own are "un-American". How often during the 2008 elections did we see a politician claim he or she represented "real Americans"? Since when are people living in New York or California not "real Americans"? 

    During my life, I have witnessed frequent act of intolerance, but the most vivid was the religious intolerance. It goes far beyond mere disagreement. People become threatened by followers of other religions. They apply sinister motives to the presence of these people (e.g., "All Muslims are terrorists and want to destroy America", or "Atheist are kicking God out of schools so they can indoctrinate our children"). This creates the dichotomy of 'us versus them', which I believe leads to this absolutely absurd idea that there is a "real America" and a "fake America".

    To be honest, I do not understand this attitude. Why are people so threatened by difference? How does somebody praying to Allah in a mosque or another giving a public reading of The Origin of Species harm you, your family, or this country? Why do some believers feel the need to force others to conform to their moral standards?

    All major religions have a version of the Golden Rule: treat others the way you wish to be treated. Yet a minority (but a vocal minority) of religious people act as if that rule comes with a starred footnote saying: "*NOTE-only applies to those others who look, sound, and act just like you".

    The goal of religion should be to unite, not to divide. Our common belief in a higher power should demonstrate to us how similar we actually are, even if our beliefs about this higher power can be contradictory at times. God did not make us as cookie-cutter models. That would be boring. How could we learn to be good people if we could not learn to tolerate and, eventually, understand, those who are different from us? In the real world, people who expect everyone to conform to their wants are considered selfish and spoiled. Why does this not carry over to religion?

    Personally, I suspect this conflict comes about because of the exclusivity in religion. If you believe only you and those with identical beliefs are saved, then the rest of humanity becomes expendable. Yes, they might say "God still loves them" but they still "know" they are dammed, and therefore, not actually equal in the eyes of God. If you agree with their premise of exclusivity, is actually a fairly logical conclusion.

    The difference for me is not just disagreement with this premise, but outright disgust. My universalism tells me that God loves every single individual on this planet absolutely unconditionally. There are no favorites. There are no special groups. There are no expendables. All people are the children of God, no exceptions. So treating anyone of them poorly is identical to treating my own brother badly. 

    The past 100 years has seen great progress in human tolerance. Racism and sexism are slowly fading in much of the world. Even homosexuality is becoming more and more accepted. When will religious differences stop inciting wars or tearing apart families? When will religion stop being one of the last barriers against a united humanity?

    Tuesday, September 14, 2010

    9/11 and the Hatred of Muslims

    One of the saddest aspects of the anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks is the renewal of anti-Islamic rhetoric. The news, instead of being dominated by remembrances of the victims of this tragedy, are saturated with stories of groups or individuals who loathe Islam and paint the entire religion and all its over one billion adherents as terrorists.

    Unfortunately, this year's sad anniversary occurs as the controversy over the Muslim community center set to be built near ground zero escalates. Ironically, those protesting the community center often portray themselves as "patriots". Yet they are not upholding American ideals. The 1st Amendment of the Bill of Rights states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". In the United States of America, every individual has the right to practice his or her religion in any location and in any manner as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others.

    Many of those opposed to the community center also shout about "sensitivity". Sensitivity to what? Muslim Americans died in the World Trade Center that day, along with their fellow Christian citizens. Since when has freedom of religion come with the caveat of "sensitivity"? Should Christian churches not be allowed near the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial because Timothy McVeigh was a Christian?

    An even worse idea I have heard put forward by some of these protesters is that mosques should not be allowed in the United States because Christian churches are not allowed in Saudi Arabia. So what? We are not Saudi Arabia. We are not a theocracy. Frankly I find this argument not only disgusting, but childish. It is nothing more than the adult equivalent of "He does it, so why can't I?" Any mature person should be content that those people and belief systems different from their own deserve the same rights.

    Another tragedy comes from Flordia and the Rev. Terry Jones, who threatened to burn a copy of the Qur'an. At the last moment, he decided not to go through with this hateful demonstration. But the damage is done. Two people have died in riots protesting his actions. No political statement made in hate is worth someone's life.

    Islam is not perfect. Neither is Christianity. Or Buddhism. Or Judaism. All religions can, and have, been used for evil purposes. It does not mean that the religion itself is evil or that its believers do not deserve the same rights and protections. The actions of a few misguided radicals does NOT define Islam and we should not let it define our reaction to Muslims exercising their freedom of religion.

    Favorite Bible Quotes

    A list of my seven favorite quotes from the Bible. These choices are from longer passages to tiny snippets, but all of them I find either thought provoking or comforting. They are not listed in particular order, although the last one is my absolute favorite. All quotes come from the New International Edition.
    • God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. (...) There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:16-19)
    • "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: (...) "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength." The second is this: "Love your neighbor as yourself." There is no commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:29-31)
    • The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalms 34:18)
    • Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:8)
    • Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said: "Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone- while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?" (Job 38:1-7)
    • "Come now, let us reason together," says the LORD. (Isaiah 1:17-18)
    • "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (Revelation 21:3-4)

    Monday, September 13, 2010

    Jupiter Bright in the Sky

    For anyone interested in astronomy, Jupiter will be extremely bright throughout the month of September. Actually, it is at the brightest magnitude that can be seen from Earth. It rises in the east around sunset, so best viewing would be a couple hours later. Brighter than any other star, it is easily visible to the naked eye. Even a small telescope will have enough power to show you Jupiter's reddish-orange equatorial bands and it's four largest moons (Europa, Callisto, Ganymede, and Io) as small points of light close to the planet.

    *Note: To tell the difference between a planet and a star, look closely at the light. Starlight twinkles, but the light from a planet does not.

    Defining My Universalism

    Like any theological concept, the idea of universalism will have varying meanings for different people. In my last post, I discussed how I do not see universalism through the lens of Christianity, despite the commonality of that view. In this post, I will attempt to put forth in more detail exactly what I mean when I state "I am a universalist". The best way I perceive to do this is with a list of what I do believe, what I do not believe, and what I am unsure of.

    1. I believe God is absolutely unconditional love and that this love extends to all people indiscriminately, regardless of their beliefs or actions.

    2. I believe that, because God is love, God will not allow any of his creation to be lost forever. In the end, all people will be saved.

    3. I do NOT believe this means a person is allowed to do whatever he/she pleases and still "get into heaven". I do believe there are consequences for our negative actions, especially those which we do not repent. Universalism is NOT an excuse to sin. It should be an excuse to become a better person when you realize that all people are truly equal in the eyes of God.

    4. I am unsure of how exactly sin in punished. I have heard of many options, including a temporary hell of corrective punishment (like a purgatory) or reincarnation (where important life lessons are repeated until properly learned). While I lean toward the former explanation, I have not yet formed a final decision.

    5. I do believe that, whatever form punishment may take, God does out of love and concern, not anger.

    6. I do believe there are many paths to God and to being a good person, and that a belief in God (theism) is NOT necessary to be a good person.

    7. I do NOT believe that all paths lead to God, nor that all paths are equal. Every major religion has (in my opinion) valid paths to God. But every major religion also has paths that I consider lead away from God. Any belief system can lead to God, but when twisted for selfish personal gain, it will quickly lead the follower down a destructive path away from God.

    These 7 statements sum up my universalism and my belief about God. Obviously it is not perfect. There is a certain degree of uncertainty (especially in point 4) that I hope to write on in more detail with a later post. Until then, I hope this explanation will at least assist you in understanding more precisely what I mean when I say "I believe in universalism".

    Sunday, September 12, 2010

    Universalism and Christianity: My Perspective

    I grew up in a Christian family. I have attended many Christian churches (although most considered themselves Southern Baptist). I celebrate Christian holidays. It is the religious tradition I am most knowledgeable about and the tradition I am closest too. I knew little about any other tradition until high school, and it was not until I was in college that I extensively studied another religious tradition.

    Despite this, Christianity is the religion I feel the most isolated from. I know that many universalists practice this belief through the eyes of Christianity, believing that all people will be saved through Jesus Christ. While I take no issue with this, I do not. My early experiences with Christianity were extraordinarily negative. It was in a Christian church I was taught to hate myself and to fear God. Even with my conversion to universalism, those ideas still haunt me at times. I am not free of the damage that has been done.

    But it is not only past events influencing this feeling of isolation. Almost everyday I see Christians who claim they love everyone isolate and condemn those whom they feel do not fit into their tiny little box of what they believe constitutes a "good person". Two of my best friends are homosexual. Neither of them would ever hurt another person, yet they are told what they do is evil. One of them is about to marry her partner of 3 years and she is told that her love is sinful. I have seen Muslim and Buddhist friends threatened with damnation because they do not follow Jesus Christ. I have seen how much this hurts them. Because of this, Christianity continues to leave a bad taste in my mouth.

    However, I am not blinded by hate. I know this view of Christianity is not fair. I know most Christians are not so hateful and work tirelessly to practice the love that they preach. I know there are Christian churches which are inclusive and accepting of all people.

    I also know this view is not fair to Jesus. Although I have not decided for myself exactly what he was (whether Son of God, a prophet inspired by God, or just a normal human), I do believe his ideas are immensely valuable to humanity as a whole, as well as individuals, regardless of the religious tradition they follow. It is because of this that I do not equate Jesus with Christianity since Christianity does not, and cannot, claim monopoly over him. Muslims consider him a prophet and people from every walk of life have been inspired by his teachings, including myself.

    Even with this knowledge, however, I cannot bring myself back to Christianity, even a Christianity framed with universalist ideals. I still have much bitterness and anger towards Christianity that I must work through. How long this will take is anyone's guess. I might not ever be able to return to the tradition of my childhood. Even if I am able to work through the negativity Christianity has left me with, that is no guarantee I will want to return. Forgiving does not mean forgetting. I also have my personality working against me. I am an independent person, and prefer to study and worship God on my own terms. I am not criticizing those who prefer to do those things in a community setting. I just feel differently.

    Overall, I do believe Christianity is a positive force in the world. But until I can heal from the wounds inflicted on me from one sect of Christianity, I do not feel comfortable claiming myself to be a Christian in any way.

    My Journey

    From early childhood, religion presented a problem for me. I grew up in a religious family, and my identity as a Christian was just assumed.It was never a conscious choice made on my part, it just was.

    My grandfather had taught me to read even before I entered kindergarten, and I devoured numerous books. It was around this time my interest in science became apparent. At first it was biology. I loved reading about animals, especially reptiles. Later, I transitioned into astronomy after learning about the constellations at summer camp.

    Around the same time I began to attend Sunday school, where I was taught many Bible stories. Even at a young age, I noticed inconsistencies between what I was taught in school and read in books to what I was told the Bible said. I remember asking my mother how cave men fit into the story of Adam and Eve. Since she had grown up in the Catholic Church, with its more accepting attitude towards science, she explained to me how the Bible stories were not necessarily meant to be taken literally, but were stories told thousands of years ago to help people make sense of the world. This made sense to me, and for a time everything was fine.

    Just before my 5th birthday, my family moved to Oklahoma when my step-dad received a job offer. Almost immediately, we began attending a church which was much more conservative, both in its politics and its theology. Since it was also a small church, Sunday school was not offered, only a nursery for children under 7, so I attended regular sermons with my parents for the first time. It was at this time religion, and specifically Christianity, became a destructive force in my life.

    Although not a fire and brimstone preacher, the pastor at my church often talked about hell. He made it clear that those who did not accept Jesus Christ as their savior would suffer eternally in ways that could not even be imagined. But, more frequently, he talked about what he called "false" Christians: those who believed they were saved, but because they did not live a life free of sin and measure up to the perfection of God, were actually damned by the judgment of a vengeful and wrathful god.

    Being a rather sensitive child, I took these messages to heart. Although most people would not have described me as a bad child (I got good grades, usually did my chores, never got in serious trouble, etc.) I began to fear that I was somehow one of these "false" Christians, and that I was destined for hell.

    For many years, I went through a vicious cycle of determination to be a good Christian and destructive failure whenever I felt I had done something to anger the god I was taught about every Sunday. Adding to this was an unhappy home life. My biological father had abandoned my mother during her pregnancy with me when she refused an abortion. Afraid of being a single mother, she quickly married my step-dad. Because of this, my step-dad's family, with the exception of my grandfather, never truly accepted me. When my little sister was born, my step-dad's attitude toward me turned cold. I was no longer necessary. Stuck in a series of dead-end jobs, he took his anger out on me, both emotionally and physically. With the deaths of my grandfather and all my mother's family occurring before the age of 10, I was left in a family that did not want me. I felt exceptionally alone.

    Often, I thought these tragic events were a punishment from God because I was such a bad person. Eventually, I lost all hope. During my teenage years, I ignored God. I felt he hated me, considered me worthless, and was going to send me to hell no matter what I did. Why bother trying to please God when he wanted nothing to do with me? I became depressed. I would purposely injure myself. I even attempted suicide twice.

    My life began to improve in high school. I had a wonderful group of friends. Although I never shared my religious struggles with them, they discovered my depression, self-injury, and the marks my step-dad left on me and made sure I received proper help. Because there was not enough evidence, my step-dad has never been punished for his abuse of me, but the investigation alone scared him enough to stop him from physically harming me.

    With this help, I began to recover from my childhood. Religion was no longer important to me. I dedicated my life to science and felt that God was not necessary for that life. I began to call myself an agnostic. Yet, I was never able to move into atheism. As much as I desired to not believe in God, I could not. He was always in the back of my mind. Part of me knew he was there.

    The problem was, along with God, was overwhelming fear. The thought of God still terrified me because it brought with it the certainty of my damnation to an everlasting hell filled with indescribable torments. It was a thought that made me physically ill.

    Yet, once I left home for college, and despite my immersion into the scientific community, I longed for more. I felt that my life was missing something, and although I loathed admitting it to myself, deep down I realized this longing had something to do with God. But I did not know how to get past my terror. The metaphors of "God as a loving Father" were useless for me. "Loving" and "father", in my experience, did not belong in the same sentence. And "God is Love" was equally pointless, because an entity whose very nature was love could not have created an eternal hell and actually send the people he supposedly loved there.I had a vague idea of the God I wanted, but I had seen nothing to show me He was real. I felt very isolated and alone.

    Eventually, the desire for answers was stronger than my fear. So, I did what I had always done: I began to read. I combed online for people who felt the way I felt. And I was utterly shocked when I actually found them. Lots of them. I discovered entire websites devoted to the idea of universalism. I read stories of people who had the same disillusion with Christianity and terror of God as I. I found arguments for why an everlasting hell is not consistent with God's loving character nor is it even Biblical. I saw how believers of universalism reconciled their belief in God with their hatred of conditional love and damnation.

    Yet belief still eluded me. My fear was as strong as ever. What if I was wrong? What if this was a trick? How could I be sure?

    This inner conflict came to a head one sleepless night. I was angry and I was scared. I wanted God. But I did not know how to trust Him. How could I? After everything that had happened to me? How could I ever overcome my fear? I spent several hours that night, crying softly and silently, feeling scared and alone. But suddenly, everything changed. I was surrounded by a feeling I knew to be the Love of God. I felt Him inside myself, almost too much to bear, but not painful. Words cannot describe it. I knew at that instant to God loved me more than I could possibly comprehend. He loved me and He was sorry for the terrible things that had happened to me. I cannot tell you how long this lasted. I just remember finally falling asleep immersed in the Love of God, the fear I had struggled with for so many years wiped away like it was nothing.

    Since then, I have become a dedicated universalist. I believe that God is Love and this means that God will save every single person in the end. I still have many questions, and readily admit there are many things I still do not understand, and might not ever understand, but I know in my heart that the God I have found through universalism is real and I have nothing to fear from Him.