Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Can't Relate

As humans, we can only relate to what we have experienced. It is possible that, due to some similarity, I can partially relate to an experience. Other things I couldn’t come close. For example, having been in pain, and having been a parent, I can partially relate to the experience of labor.

But upon talking to my wife (and other mothers) I come to realize that my concept of pain is miniscule as to what the pain of labor is, and my feeling of fatherhood is not at all similar to the maternal instincts and rush of hormones/adrenalines that accompany motherhood. I can talk with mothers, I can attempt to correlate with my own experiences, but in the end I recognize that having a baby is something I can only truly relate to about 2% of the their experience.

I have never been to war. I cannot even begin to fathom the idea of living in rough conditions, fear of one’s own life in an almost constant basis, while attempting to kill other soldiers from another country bent on killing you. In digging through the past experiences of my life, there is simply nothing that comes even remotely close to that reality. I can read their stories. I can watch films. I can talk to soldiers. While I may gain some head knowledge to what they have or are going through, I cannot relate to their experience in any way.

Even so, when humans meet, we attempt to relate to each other. Find common ground. All of us have been at the proverbial party, in which we reach a point of initiating a conversation with someone we have never met. We nervously start a list of twenty questions, until we strike on a similarity:

“What do you do for a living?”
“Watch the game last night?”

“You did! Oh, man, wasn’t it great when they got that break away, with only 1.5 seconds on the clock and…”

We have found our relation—the affinity by which we can both relate.

In fact, our brain words so hard to make sense of the world about us, we will find relationship even when there isn’t one. If I say, “That tasted purple” we know that “purple” is not a flavor—it is a color. Yet our brains will translate that, in order to understand it, to the flavor most associated with purple. We will relate that statement to tasting like grape. While most of us have never tasted crap, by the same token we understand the phrase, “That tastes like crap.” We can conceptualize that whatever that taste may be--it isn’t good.

The problem with a God, is that our mind is left constantly attempting to find some relational base by which to understand the concept, and never able to reach it. It is as if our mind is running at full tilt, but never can quite make that connection.

What does it mean to always exist? How does one create laughter? Does God ever need a hug?

We can strive and compare and give analogies, but in the end our mind is unable to grasp. Unable to relate. Might as well be a soldier asking a college boy to truly understand what it means to go to war.

Recently (due to other discussions elsewhere) I was thinking about an afterlife. One common disgruntlement with naturalism is that there is no afterlife. Somehow this is automatically equated with hopelessness while living. (Talk about not being able to relate!) As humans—can we truly relate to this concept? Or is it outside our grasp?

First of all, let’s take the Judgment idea. You know—where God lines up the human race, sitting on a throne, and each person takes their turn to appear before him. In some manner they are weighed and either found wanting or deemed worthy. Of what depends on the particular theist’s vision of judgment.

Some theists inform me the Scales of God’s Justice are weighted on belief. It is not what you do, nor how lived, but what you believed. Believe the correct item, the scales tip in your favor. Do not, you are condemned.

I have no way to relating to that. To me, as a human, I would take opportunity, and knowledge, and understanding and information, all into account. And other theists inform me that God does as well. I still can’t relate. What of a person that strived to believe the right thing all their life, but was denied due to their location? Or their community? What of a Mesoamerican that strived to know of Jesus, but couldn’t until the Europeans brought news of such an individual one and a half millennium later?

I can’t relate to a pass/fail based upon possibilities. In fact, it is often at this point that theists shrug and say it is up to God as to how much a person is held accountable for their belief. So a God I cannot understand is dispensing justice in a manner I cannot envision, and I am supposed to understand this?

Other theists tell me the Judgment will be on what I do. Fine—by whose standard? Imagine the ridiculous nature of attempting to determine God’s laws. We have no way to confirm them, no way to deny them, and no way to look up what we should do at a particular moment. The Christian idea of Jesus’ appearance doing away with portions of Mosaic Law, specifically the food limitation has always been amusing to me. The claim is that, at one moment (whenever that is) the food laws are in effect, the next they are not.

A Jew, in the First Century, is eating a ham sandwich. Between bites, he stopped sinning!

Does God approve of slavery? Polygamy? Masturbation? Violent Video Games? 12-year-olds in PG-13 movies?

Sure, it is possible God is no list of Do’s and Don’ts. Perhaps there is a sliding scale that for one person smoking pot is a sin, yet for another it is not. How, exactly, does this help us relate to a Godly Justice System?

Now I am told that I will be judged on what I do, but no one can determine what one needs to do, in order to be judged!

Is there universalism? No Judgment at all? While this may seem pleasing at first, it does cause one to wonder why, then, God is playing hide-and-seek now. If we all get in anyway (or all get torched anyway—works both ways, you know!) why the charade of three-card Monte as to which one has the correct God? Out with it, man, let us see the God we should have and be done with it!

Secondly, a heaven. Not sure how that one works either. It is supposed to be a happy place. But if there is a hell—how can I truly be happy? Due to the variety of humanity, regardless of the process of judgment, there is bound to be someone I personally know in Hell. Someone I would prefer not. That does not sit easy on me now. I can’t relate to it sitting easy on me in heaven.

Perhaps I will be so thrilled to get in, I won’t care about the poor sods that didn’t. Again, though, that is not who I am, so I can’t conceptualize it now. I did not know a single person effected by Hurricane Katrina. Just don’t know anyone in that part of the country. Yet my heart went out to them in their situation and I gave as best I could to correct the situation.

If I (and billions of other people) do that for complete strangers now—do we all lose that in heaven? In order to get in, we are commonly informed that we must be selfless to the poor, the needy and the hungry. Apparently once in, though, we can become selfish whores! “Too bad for those other blokes; pass the champagne and caviar—we’re in, we’re in, we’re in.”

As humans we bore. Over the course of billions of years, trillions of years, will God have to keep coming up with new ways to entertain us? At what point does God get tired of providing new creations for whiney teenagers? Or does he wipe our minds every morning, so each day is a new mystery to be discovered.

The reality is that I cannot relate to the concept of endless time stretching before me. Sure, it would be fun for the first 100 years or so. But how much of time can one take?

Thirdly, what of a hell?

Any Baptist worth his or her salt has had the image of hell tossed their way enough that some of it sticks. We get the concept of pain, fire, loneliness, torture. Again, though—for all time? Human bodies accommodate pain. (Imagine the pain threshold one could develop!) Even if the new bodies were designed to not be damaged by the implements of hell, only the experience of pain, within a short period of time, our brains would go mad.

Have you ever pounded your hand with a hammer? What do you do? You start shaking your hand in the air. Do you know why you do that? Your brain, as wonderful as it is, can only process so much. By shaking your hand, you are sending an overload of signals through the nerves to your brain. You are drowning out the pain in your thumb by sending so much information down a narrow highway that the pain can only take up so much of your brain’s time.

From what we know now, Hell would be such an overload for our brains, they would shut down. Of course, God could step up the program, and keep our brains from overloading, or wipe our memories like those in heaven. But now we have created a creature that, to what we can relate, is a sadistic monster. This goes way beyond punishment.

Further, within our human minds, we equate punishment to fit the crime. Here, we are uncertain of the crime, let alone a punishment of such monumental proportions. As much as we can each comprehend punishment and justice, if I told you I tortured my two-year old child because they wet the bed—can you relate? You understand punishment. You understand an imposition of justice. You understand wetting the bed. Yet even putting all those concepts together, your human mind says, “What a minute. Something is not right here.”

Even theists inform me that my puny mind cannot process the ideas of God, and his Justice, and an afterlife. O.K. If I cannot relate, then why should I bother? Haven’t they just undercut their arguments on the existence of such things?

How am I to spend my life worrying about things that I have no basis, no way for my mind to fit into a slot and say, “I may not fully understand it, but at least I have a slight grasp”?

I am planning a trip this summer. I have no control over whether it will rain, whether it will be sunny or hot or cold. It is useless energy to worry about such things. Whatever will be; will be. I feel much the same way about any afterlife. I seriously doubt any exists—but if it does there is nothing I have by which I can understand what it would be like.

And I find that makes my life here on earth very hopeful indeed. Rather than worrying about getting it right, or avoiding getting it wrong, or what it will be like, or what I need to avoid, all on things that are completely unknown I can focus on tomorrow. Here. On earth. And what better things I can do for others, and what good things I will happily receive.

If you think atheists are hopeless, I can vehemently assure you this is ONE atheist that is very hopeful indeed. Right now: for a bit of sun on a particular week in August, if you want to know the truth.


  1. **Even theists inform me that my puny mind cannot process the ideas of God, and his Justice, and an afterlife. ** Wouldn't this also go in reverse, though? If our minds can't comprehend God's justice, then how are they supposed to comprehend God's love, mercy, and all the other attributes? Or anything of God, period? In which case, what exactly is one worshipping?

    What I love about this argument is that I find the concept of an eternal punishment for lack of belief unfair and immoral. I'm told that God's justice/fairness is above mine. Okay. But this is the same God that imparts a universal morality, and so doesn't my finding an eternal torment immoral say that I'm getting it from God?

  2. Heather, you are right. I have written quite a bit on how, if we do not know God’s Justice, to the exact same degree, we cannot know his mercy. If any.

    As to the universal morality (or what I have seen called “intuitive morality”) probably the funniest use of that claim that I ever saw was Greg Koukl in his resolution to the Euthyphro Dilemma.

    He used Abraham as an example of how we all know the difference between right and wrong. Abraham! Excuse me? Isn’t this the guy who, when an authoritative figure asked him to kill his own son just to prove his loyalty, he replied, “Sure. No Problem.”

    That is an example of universal morality? The LAST person I would use as an example of this is a guy willing to commit child sacrifice just to please the whim of a dictator.

    Anyway, it was so ludicrous, I found it funny.

  3. ** if we do not know God’s Justice, to the exact same degree, we cannot know his mercy. If any. **

    Basically, how it's coming across is that you can question God so long as you agree with a certain viewpoint. If I say to a conservative Christian, "God is Love," they'll enthusiastically agree with me and say I'm 100% on target. If I say, "An eternal torment for lack of belief isn't just," then I'm just deluded and hiding in my sins. Okay, but they can't have it both ways.

    **He used Abraham as an example of how we all know the difference between right and wrong. ** Okay, that made me giggle. Abraham is the worst example. He's a great example of blind obedience, in terms of not protesting. But moral? If so, then anyone who kills their child today and says it's because God demanded it is also moral.

  4. Thus saith DagoodS:
    "Recently (due to other discussions elsewhere) I was thinking about an afterlife. One common disgruntlement with naturalism is that there is no afterlife. Somehow this is automatically equated with hopelessness while living. "

    If I am thinking about the discussion I think you are talking about, I immediately thought of the same things you did. He may have hope for a heaven, and wonder what hope an athiest sees after death. While I am not an athiest, I understand that his hope in heaven also comes with the hopelessness of watching and knowing the bulk of humanity suffering eternal torment. Talk about survivor's guilt!! I used to look at people in two camps: saved and damned, and there was nothing I could do for the damned but grieve. My own mother was included in the damned, and I used to anguish over that fact. Taken to it's logical conclusion, there is no hope in eternal paradise. Knowing that everyone else was being tormented would probably drive me mad. A God like that cannot exist - it simply makes no sense, and I refuse to let that neurosis ruin my real hope in my real life - my life that may only last a few more decades.

  5. **I understand that his hope in heaven also comes with the hopelessness of watching and knowing the bulk of humanity suffering eternal torment. Talk about survivor's guilt!!**

    Indeed. And no matter how it's spun, it still looks bad. I've heard that no one will mourn because in heaven, they'll see those in hell in their 'true' form aka full of sin and thus disguisting. But then shouldn't those people be pitied, since they'll still stuck in that?

    Or that they'll celebrate over God's justice. But what does it say about a person who would celebrate over someone eternally suffering, or eternally alone?

    Or God will wipe about the memories of the 'damned' and thus no one will have a reason to mourn. Except that's right up there with mind-rape, and, honestly, think about how many 'damned' the 'saved' come into contact with everyday, and so think about what removing those memories would do to the person.

    In today's times, if someone wasn't bothered by the suffering of someone else, we would call that inhumane. Why then, does that stop after death?

    I do believe in God. But I can't believe in a God that damns people to hell, or allows people to send themselves there, or however someone wants to put it. I can't see people that way.

  6. dagoods,
    your title pretty much sums it up "can't relate." With the example of child birth, you can at least have 2% relation, and, you have a huge chunk of the populace confirming "it's very painful, I know, I gave birth, here's the kid to prove it," etc. With an afterlife, no one can "relate." No one have even survived to tell about it.

  7. Great post, dagoods. When people talk about eternity, it just boggles my mind. It never ends! We cannot comprehend that. I can't comprehend being in bliss or torment for eternity; I don't see how either is possible-- that doesn't mean it's not possible, but I sure don't understand it. Great point about not knowing God's law, too. I still can't figure out how an unchanging God's law changed with a "new covenant." Doesn't that mean He changed His mind?

    Also, I hate the "God's justice is above our justice" argument. If we can't understand it, why is He even described as just!!?? I agree with you on so many points here, I could go on and on. Thanks for a well-written post.