Monday, January 17, 2011

Divine Grace of God versus Spiritual Effort and Discipline

Crucial moment of inspiration and change for philosopher St. Augustine

St. Augustine claims that one is saved not through one's actions but through the Grace of God. No matter how much you may repent or how many good deeds you can claim to your name, it will be ultimately God's own personal decision to save you from eternal damnation.

Throughout religious history in the Western world this has been an important factor. Martin Luther picked up that idea and gave faith more importance than before. It became essentially your faith that saved you.

Therefore, many believed that if you have faith in Jesus before you die, you will have the opportunity to gain entrance to heaven because Jesus represented God's Grace directly. The last rites became a grave matter of (eternal) life and death. It was seen as the soul's ultimate struggle.

How convenient, many may say. You lead a life of sin, pleasure, corruption, violence, and at the final moment before death, you suddenly have faith, accept Christ and all's well that ends well. This, by the way, applies to dear St. Augustine himself. It is only after a life of impulsive sexual escapades that he decided to embrace religion, and then he claims that sex is actually bad for the spiritual path. It is all in hindsight, but let us please at least have the same type of experience / fun before we learn from our erroneous ways and turn passionately to religion.

There is a touch of dishonesty or affectation at work here. Although faith is both relevant and important, it cannot or should not be the determining factor. In the Catholic doctrine there is the belief of acts of charity and generosity asking people to act out of the goodness of their hearts but at the same time the Catholic religion still insists on the sacraments. The Muslims make sure they help the poor and needy by contributing a certain percentage of their earnings to them although likewise in their doctrine God's Grace overrides any amount of good deeds.

And the Protestant or Puritan Work Ethic, reshaping and reworking the Lutheran philosophy, placed importance on work. Work hard on this Earth and you will have riches in heaven. The property and money you have down here will be transferred to your “bank account” in heaven.

Although the latter has a strong capitalistic flair to it, it was still more focused on actions and deeds than merely having faith and hoping God will interfere and make all well. At the same time, there was an implicit clause of divine grace, the fine print so-to-speak: Only those predetermined and designated by God, the so-called Elect, had a chance of making it to heaven (but you generally had no way of knowing beforehand).

Contrary to our Western concept of “divine grace,” the Eastern tradition has focused more on spiritual practice and discipline. Following the concept of karma, we are living in a world of give and take, a world of our own making. The Buddhists claim that if you put a lot of effort in our endeavors and you live and practice the Eightfold Path, you will be rewarded with spiritual insight. Furthermore, the practice of meditation is used as a tool toward reaching understanding, self-awareness, and - perhaps eventually – spiritual enlightenment.

It will “cost” us, in the sense of having to work hard for it, but it will be ultimately rewarding. Our daily life is based on that premise, whereas strangely enough most of our religious beliefs are not. Many still hold onto the un-existential belief that faith can at anytime overpower one's lifetime of acts and that faith is the miracle wonder drug that makes you immune against all accusations of wrongdoing.

Albeit important, faith should not be used as an excuse for lack of integrity; in the meantime, one's beliefs should be directly reflected in and embedded within one's life. And no matter what belief system you follow, the good and honest people of any denomination should have an equal chance of getting to heaven - that is, if there is such a place.

14 comments:

Jimmy Clay said...

I've always had a hard time understanding the logic of Jesus' sacrifice. How is it that his dying can save me from my sins? And what is it about my believing in him or my faith in him, that saves me?

John Myste said...

Firstly, I would rather chew on rusty nails than to defend the proponent of faith, but I find myself in that uncomfortable position:

"Albeit important, faith should not be used as an excuse for lack of integrity."

Speaking now for Christians, who are often the goofiest goofballs in the goof pile (respectfully speaking), faith is not an excuse for sin.

If you decide now that you will embrace Jesus at the last minute, it will not trick the Almighty. He is very intuitive. However, if you happen to find God at the last minute, then that is good enough, so long as it was not a planned last minute discovery.

Back before I was a blogger, I wrote a post about the mistake God makes in handling "faith at the last minute" this way. However, in the Christian's defense, they do not use faith as tool of last minute redemption by way of forgiveness for a lifetime of sin. Instead they teach that whenever one becomes "righteous," i.e. like them, they will be saved. The opportunity for redemption has no expiration date. Again, if you plan to accept Jesus at the last minute, it will not fool God.

The problem I see with the Christianity is the subject of my misplaced article on this issue. The Christian God is a bit confused. Humans may live to be 85 and the whole of their life, the existence from the moment of conception through all eternity is summed up in the instance they happen, per chance, to die. I am not the man I was 20 years ago and I certainly am not the man I will have become 20 years from now. The Christian God doesn’t realize this. Were I to suddenly die today, I would be judge by the John I am today. Instead, if I die 20 years from now, I will be judged by who that man is. Were I to live another millennium, I would certainly be more virtuous, knowledgeable and a wiser man then, and my chances of eternal bliss would be a far sight better. I only include knowledge in the mix of virtues that lead to salvation because it appears from what I am told that not knowing that God is the One, or not believing it, is grounds for eternal execution. You are wrong! You must die for not figuring things out!

If God wants to be fair, He would never judge us based on who we happened to be at the exact moment that He pulls the plug, and this life ends. He would judge the man that given an infinite existence, we had the potential to become. After all, there is some precedent. As an infinite being, He judges himself that way.

Arashmania said...

@Jimmy Clay: I agree it is not very clear how his sacrifice would actually redeem and save us from sins. I believe that if people believed "less" in him but acted "more" like him, it would probably benefit us all the more!

@JMyste: I don't say this very often, but your comment did blow me away! Chapeau!

You touch upon one of my favorite subjects, time. Yes, I do agree with you that the problem is one of time-frame. Is the end more important than the beginning or the middle?

In the arts, it seems to be so. How a movie ends often determines the genre, sometimes "despite" the different beginning and middle. Again, "all's well that ends well."

But that still does not justify the emphasis on the final moments in people's lives. One should be given the benefit of the doubt in proportion to time.

I am also surprised by your comment that you do presuppose, maybe for argument's sake, the existence of God. I do agree that God will not be fooled, but the problem is that other humans will be. If they say he was a "sinner" but died a believing man, he would be respected, most likely undeservedly so. Can a serial killer, for example, accept Christ at the end of his life and be forgiven? Should he?

However, one clarification. I do not say that people (or Christians) actually use faith as an excuse, I just deplore the fact that it does happen. I am personally a strong believer in faith, and that is exactly why I do not like it being misused or taken advantage of.

And, by the way, I have no intention of attacking Christians. Far from it. I am myself a Christian, on even days, that is.

Vincent said...

I come back to this post at John's prompting. When I read it a couple of times before, I could not make my mind up what I thought. It was like reading the manifestos of several different political parties, each of which has features that you object to strongly. I have a strong antipathy to Augustine's later life and beliefs, and feel that his redeeming feature was his earlier life. "Sin, pleasure, corruption, violence" sounds like a mixed bag. I'm against corruption and violence, in favour of pleasure, and a bit suspicious of what is counted as sin. I might not think it a sin!

Though I have lived the protestant or puritan work ethic, I rather wish I had been more feckless and self-indulgent. I might have wasted less of my life and been a better person to know.

As for the eightfold path, enough already. I spent 30 years of my life in that stuff. Not as a Buddhist, but in some indian-guru-based meditation cult that I refuse to talk about, so don't ask!

If you were to ask my present beliefs, I would say I believe in intrinsic goodness, as well as the inevitability of making mistakes, and the impossibility of knowing at the time what is or is not a mistake.

So I see that everyone is on a path, not necessarily what certain people might call a "spiritual" path. Just a path. By definition, we all do our best (a) to survive and (b) to make the best use of our continuing survival day by day.

Laws are obviously needed to control the various types of vicious behaviour and some people need to be locked up for their own and society's good. But if people are motivated to be saved by some particular strategy, who is to stand in their way?

Arashmania said...

I think I am rather Nietzschean and idealist in my outlook on survival. What you are describing I would subscribe to when facing immediate threat and danger, but as a general life philosophy I don't merely think about surviving or getting by, but about excelling. Though you may have hinted towards that in b) perhaps?

I think pleasure has often been unjustly attacked by most, if not all, religions. As long as no harm is done and it is not in excess, I don't have a problem with it. The concept of sin troubles me as well and does more harm than good.

The work ethic I actually like, but not so much for material but rather, for want of a better word, spiritual wealth. That is something that surprises me that in general we work hard for money and material wealth, but we do comparatively little for spiritual growth.

I believe that life is a series of little epiphanies. And if you are lucky they will lead to what is commonly known as a state of enlightenment. Buddhists do not say that you suddenly out of nowhere get struck by the light of enlightenment. It is a gradual process and is unlike divine grace that happens suddenly to both the credulous and sinners alike.

But either way you cannot go wrong with intrinsic goodness. Eventually, we might discover the rhyme or reason behind it all. Or maybe not. God only knows.

John Myste said...

Firstly, thanks for the seldom-spoken kind worlds.

Nextly, yes, I am representing the Christian and His faith in God for the sake of the discussion. I like Christianity and other religions and I forgive the nonsense and appreciate the good stuff. I do sometimes poke fun as the nonsense because it begs me to do so in a most seductive way. My position is what I think the typical Christian position should be. I am considering if accepting Jesus at the last minute should be grounds for forgiveness of all other sins, assuming Christianity's basic storyline is accurate (an assumption that, as you know, I do not make).

"Can a serial killer, for example, accept Christ at the end of his life and be forgiven? Should he?"

Yes, it is never too late to accept Christ (and the righteousness and love He embodies). As I stated earlier, there are two conditions: 1. you cannot pretend to accept Him in order to fool God, but you must truly accept Him and not as a planned last-minute device to gain redemption and 2. It seems ridiculously unfair that you are judged by your level of acceptance at the exact moment your life is taken from you. Why is that moment any more relevant than any other? The acceptance should be based on who you have the potential to become assuming an infinite existence.

The next thing you ask was should s serial killer be given this option. I will define a "serial killer" as someone with the capacity to commit murder. No other definition makes sense from a theological perspective. Whether such an individual was denied the opportunity or the motivation to do so, whether because of happenstance or cowardice, is not relevant. One person is not better than another merely because the other had more opportunity and motivation to commit specific sins.

If someone was a serial killer in the past, meaning he had the capacity to murder, though perhaps not the opportunity, and he then accepts Jesus, and everything that means, into his heart, then that individual no longer has the capacity to commit murder. He is no longer a serial killer. You cannot punish the man he was, as that individual no longer exists; and to punish the man he has become would be unfair, as this man is blameless. The man he became would not kill anyone, nor has. Therefore, it would be wrong for God to punish him.

[THE END]

John Myste said...

@Jimmy Clay: I just saw your thread, which I must shamefully confess that I skimmed over the first time. I have an answer to your question, sir.

To back up my answer I can look up scripture, but will assume for now that you have read enough of Biblical text to accept my explanation, or at least the premise on which it is based, as fact, prima facie.

God often visited the most horrible punishment on various people’s that one could imagine. He promised such punishment on others, even in the Ten Commandments He warned that if you worshipped an idol, He would destroy your children and your great grandchildren to get even. Repeatedly He ordered his people to execute the children of enemies to smite them in various ways.

Through the repeated reports of God’s greatest acts of vengeance, it is clear that at one time the execution of a child was the greatest horror one could know. It was a fate worse than torture and worse than the eternal loss of one’s soul.

I believe it is John 3:16 that says: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." In other words, he punished Himself with a fate as great as any mankind had ever experienced. Of course, His Son did not actually die, but just took a nap. God ignored this fact, as tricking Christians is not that difficult.

[This site only allows 4096 comments, so I have to post twice to post my full response. Part II is next]

John Myste said...

Part II of Prior Comment:

The apostle Paul and other church fathers and apostles had a very specific political agenda at the time Christianity was invented, which was after Jesus’ death. Jesus himself was not a Christian and would never have embraced what came to be called Christianity. Paul’s agenda was to unite the “pagans” and the Jewish people against the Romans. To this end, he created a religion that opposed reason and preached faith in the absence of reason as a virtue. Additionally, he preached that God was willing to make the greatest sacrifice for us and we must be willing to do so for Him. Unlike Machiavelli, where a whole book was written to determine whether a leader should be feared or loved, Paul and the others structured Christianity so God was both feared and loved. His strategy puts Machiavelli’s to shame. You could not attack Christianity because faith is immune to the effects of logical attack.

Among the old “pagan” ideas that were adopted by the early Christians to appease pagans were the concept of a living God dying for his people, the celebration of God’s birthday’s as a festival, the idea that there is a good God that opposes a Bad God (we call the bad god an angel, or Satan, but he is the exact same creature as is called a God in pagan myths. In order to appease more monotheistic minded fellows, the handling had to be delicate.

Paul basically disowned the Old Testament, yet had to keep it, as his Jewish base would not have joined him otherwise. The utterly silly interpretation of the prophesies of Jeremiah are still used today to establish the New Covenant whereby abandoning most of God’s law was OK and is actually a mandate from God, who always planned to change His mind. It seems like an unlikely story, until you realize that faith is the only evidence needed to back it up, per the machinery Paul designed.

I would say more, but I already have a longer piece in progress (mostly in my head), that delves very deep into this exact topic. I intend to explain why Christianity has survived as a dominant force in for 2000 years and why it will decline into relative obscurity in the First World sometime this century. I will give you a preview, though. The gist is this: Atheists and others have sought to unravel Christianity for centuries, but their arguments fall on deaf ears. They use logic to confront faith. It cannot. Only in the last few decades have Christians been arguing in earnest that the validity of Christianity can be proven with logic, science and history. This violates Paul’s design and allows the atheist’s arguments to penetrate the heart of Christianity. On that front, science and logic, Christianity cannot win. Logic is helpless against faith, but very powerful against lesser logic. In allowing the argument to move from the religious to scientific camps, Christians will succeed in undoing what atheists have sought to undo for centuries and could not.

Vincent said...

I especially like the insights of your last paragraph, John: that Christianity made the error of trying to support its claims by reason, and thus fatally wounded itself.

In the old gentlemanly art of duelling, the challenger invited his opponent to “Choose your weapons”, implying his own broad proficiency at pretty much anything.

These days there are not so many gentlemen, so one fights few duels. If my opponent fights dirty, I shall not defend myself, for that degrades me into his nongentlemanly class. I shall walk away as calmly as possible.

Using logic is fighting dirty, in some arenas! I prefer to startle with Surrealism, or dazzle with Dada.

JMyste said...

Vincent --

"Using logic is fighting dirty."

That is actually very profound! In the case of Pauline Christianity, it really is. As you know (or may not remember), the Apostle Paul is one of my named heroes. He was a genius and had a Godly understanding of psychology and human nature. I place his craftiness above that of Tony Blair! I must, for in the end, Tony Blair failed himself, but I digress.

The real issue is, you cannot successfully fight dirty when the war is intellectual. In any discourse, once either side violates any axioms of the other, the dispute becomes pointless. You must stop and address the violated axiom, or your discussion is unintelligible. (I wrote a post about that also: http://fairandunbalanced.com/blog1.php/2010/12/30/ ).

If Christian axioms are based on faith and atheist axioms on something else (or if the atheist believes their axioms are based on something else), then the discussion cannot move forward period.

In logic, to disregard the assumed truth your opponent’s axioms and move on as if no transgression existed, is not only fighting dirty, but fighting an opponent who is now in a dimension; one that is beyond the reach of your weapons. If we are to go to war, one must go to the other’s battlefield.

John Myste said...

Vincent --

"Using logic is fighting dirty."

That is actually very profound! In the case of Pauline Christianity, it really is. As you know (or may not remember), the Apostle Paul is one of my named heroes. He was a genius and had a Godly understanding of psychology and human nature. I place his craftiness above that of Tony Blair! I must, for in the end, Tony Blair failed himself, but I digress.

The real issue is, you cannot successfully fight dirty when the war is intellectual. In any discourse, once either side violates any axioms of the other, the dispute becomes pointless. You must stop and address the violated axiom, or your discussion is unintelligible. (I wrote a post about that also: http://fairandunbalanced.com/blog1.php/2010/12/30/ ).

If Christian axioms are based on faith and atheist axioms on something else (or if the atheist believes their axioms are based on something else), then the discussion cannot move forward period.

In logic, to disregard the assumed truth your opponent’s axioms and move on as if no transgression existed, is not only fighting dirty, but fighting an opponent who is now in a dimension; one that is beyond the reach of your weapons. If we are to go to war, one must go to the other’s battlefield.

Arashmania said...

The age-old and classic conflict between logic and faith. I do not think that Christianity is losing the battle and believe that it acted out of necessity.

Aquinas looked into combining reason with faith. In fact, in his view, most people could use reason to reach truth, but there was also revelation or faith that could come first-hand from the Holy Spirit. Christianity's push for logic came from the need for religion to be taken seriously and to give it a strong foundation in a scientific world.

The problem is that after Newton, there was the tendency to see the world as mechanical, so people like Descartes and Kant had to come up with more complex justifications for God's existence for religion to remain relevant. The problem with Descartes was that his scientific arguments were strong, but his theological ones were easily discarded by future philosophers.

Now I personally have “faith” in Christianity's future. I think it is a religion that will weather the storm if it continues to adapt itself to the modern realities. I am, however, worried about Catholicism because if they do not step up and modernize they will be eaten up alive by the whale of oblivion.

The Christian, however, has two secret weapons at hand that they can pull out anytime during the debate. The first one is still faith. After you may punch and reveal logical holes into their shield of arguments, they can always revert back to the faith argument. It is not an either / or option. Faith is always “there”. Second, the Christian basis is the Bible. So if you do not agree with that point, the debate will have come to a premature end, as you have pointed out, John.

I do see your point about faith. Logic can be refuted, but emotion cannot. But Christianity again had no choice but to give it at least a try and some Christian philosophers have managed to sound rather convincing. Yet on a pure logical basis I do agree that Christianity would be on the losing side.

@Vincent: I also prefer the old-fashioned duel, but the problem is a loss of honor, dignity and integrity, perhaps even pride. Nowadays, most people are not "gentlemen" and fight “dirty” as you say. And nobody would seriously consider avenging their pride if somebody snaps a glove in their face.

Yes, with a sigh, the times have changed (but we can still use "nonsense" to throw off our logical opponent!)

John Myste said...

Arash,

I just wrote a 1000 word response to your last comment, but as Vincent has taught me, I only did so because I am a base American. (I don't think he tried to teach me that, but he did).

Therefore, I have decided not to post it, though it is brilliant. I addressed some of the points you made. I contorted them into statements supporting my original contention. I did this because I am a base American.

Three things compel me to stop the discussion here:

1. The comment is greater than 4096 characters, which is the limit that can be posted here and to break up the comment would be tantamount to cutting the mona lisa in half.

2. I have a rather large article on this exact topic in the hopper. I kind of like getting feedback via comments, as it will make my article stronger and tighter. However, this fact also makes the post a bit redundant.

3. It feels a little bit ungentlemanly, as the conversation could continue indefinitely.
Arash, your posts always inspire volumes of thought. That is why I keep coming back.

Arashmania said...

Thank you for your thought-provoking comments, John!

I wasn't aware that they have limits on comments. Feel free to add any links to expand, if you like.

By the way, I really hope you end up writing your book one of these days because you have a very interesting take on things.