Thursday, 17 May 2012

Universalism and Individuality

I believe in neither an omnipotent creator nor a hereafter but what would follow from these premises? First, universalism. An omnipotent creator would be able to “save” all of his creatures. I did not include benevolence among the premises but I argue that it is implicit in omnipotence. Only finite power can be or needs to be oppressive. An infinitely powerful being would not be able to profit by exploiting finite beings. We would not be able to make anything for him that he could not effortlessly have made for himself. Indeed, by definition, he already is everything that he might want to be. Therefore, his only purpose in creating us must have been for our benefit. It follows that infinite power differs not quantitatively but qualitatively from finite power, however great.

Another difference is that resistance to finite but very great power is difficult but possible whereas resistance to infinite power, if it did exist, would be not only unnecessary but also impossible. Infinite creative power would be the source of even the thought of resistance. We do not resist air, Earth or the energy of which they are composed, still less a hypothetical creative power beyond but sustaining them. We resist only fellow beings in a common environment. The idea of Satan as a rebel angel was a concession to Zoroastrian dualism. Earlier monotheism did not recognise such an opponent of God. He alone both inspired Moses and hardened Pharaoh’s heart against Moses’ message and we must now ask why he would do the latter.

How does our hypothetical creator save all his human creatures? Not through a single belief. If he had wanted to be known only through Judaism, then he could have prevented Paul from founding Christianity, Muhammad from launching Islam etc. He could also have ensured that everyone who heard the prophetic message found it convincing. The power that allegedly hardened Pharaoh’s heart could have softened it instead. If Vedism had sufficed, then he could have prevented the rishis from composing the Upanishads, Gotama from founding Buddhism and Mahavira from re-launching Jainism.
A world in which everyone inherited and accepted a single belief would not be the world that we live in and would lack valuable diversity but would have existed if an omnipotent creator had wanted it to. It follows that we can best help others not by converting them to a particular belief but by encouraging them to be honest about whatever beliefs they have inherited. Although the diversity of beliefs about the creator must be in accordance with his will, the beliefs themselves remain mutually incompatible. It follows that some (finite) beliefs must approximate to the (infinite) truth more closely than others. Is the number of divine persons many, three, one or none? Surely we are obliged to enquire as well as to practice our current, provisional, beliefs as faithfully as possible?

From the fact that I was educated as a Catholic, it does not follow either that Constantine got it right or that Luther got it wrong. Even while a Catholic, I had concluded that God must deal with each soul individually. How can someone who has never heard of Christianity be condemned for not being a Christian? How can a Hindu who has merely heard of Christianity as a European religion be condemned for not converting to it? A Hindu can recognise Christ as another spiritual teacher and/or divine incarnation and can thus approach a broader perspective. How can a devout Anglican have access to less grace than an indifferent Catholic merely because, according to Catholicism, Anglican orders are invalid?

Everyone has a distinctive personality from an early age. Social interaction is necessary to activate the personality but, when it is activated, it is unique, despite the fact that children learn by imitation, despite all the conditioning and indoctrination, despite even a common family upbringing. Twins brought up together can be completely dissimilar. Where does each personality come from? There are different explanations but here we are assuming an omnipotent creator of all things other than himself and of every human soul.

It follows that the creator creates each unique personality, including those dispositions that are classed as “original sin.” He wants our moral development to be from bad to good, not from good to better. Sometimes, “good” appears as “bad” when compared with “better,” but, also, some situations are simply good and not relatively bad. For example, it would undeniably be a good thing if everyone were more empathetic than they are from an earlier age.

Someone I knew seemed to have an unfair share of bad qualities. She was conceited, lazy, arrogant, aggressive, selfish and stupid and completely incapable of self-criticism. Reading this passage, she would not recognize it as describing her. As an acquaintance, I found her personality intolerable but if I were her creator, for example the author of a novel in which she was a character, then it would make no sense for me to blame her for her failings. Why had I made her like that in the first place? This individual’s unalterable prejudices were secularist so there was no way that she would ever convert to Evangelical Christianity but this alone guarantees her damnation, according to Evangelicals. 

A repressive, intolerant, conformist upbringing is accepted without question by some personalities and can be shrugged off by others but can also have a disastrous effect on any personality that initially lacks some basic interpersonal and social skills. The creator not only creates all these personalities but also is associated in many minds with just such an upbringing. Is it his will that we simply accept this situation or that we question and transcend it? It must be the creator’s will that each of us does the best that he can insofar as he is able to judge what is for the best. 

Religiously, we should each be able to practice what we believe without impeding others. Politically, we cannot avoid conflict. Some perceive that the best way to do anything good in the world is to work through existing political structures. Others, including the present writer, believe that existing social structures are long overdue for a revolutionary transformation. People of good will cannot avoid conflict but, presumably, the creator perceives and assesses good intentions as such. Either a Conservative or a revolutionary might be involved in politics solely as a means to personal power, prestige etc. It is a separate question which kind of politics best serves the longer term interests of society as a whole.
An omnipotent creator would have to judge each soul with a full knowledge of that soul’s circumstances. After all, he creates that soul and those circumstances. If, at the time of death, a given soul has further moral and spiritual progress to make, then clearly he needs more time for development in a hereafter. What kind of hereafter is implied by an omnipotent creator? Does it make sense that the only people saved are Catholics who happened to be in a state of grace at the time of death? Evangelicals get a better deal because they are guaranteed salvation whatever sins they commit between conversion and death but the prospect of an eternity in the company of fundamentalists and their equally bigoted deity is not a happy one.

An endless hereafter would have to be a series of opportunities for further growth and development. Memories cannot accumulate indefinitely so it makes sense that they should end with the trauma of death, the waters of Lethe. The next stage would have to begin with the learning of a new language and of new rules of engagement. How does this differ from one person dying and another being born, which happens already?

Despite the argument so far, is there any evidence that one of the existing religions is a special revelation from the creator? Not in the case of Christianity: damnation, blood sacrifice and sacramentalized cannibalism are primitive ideas. The ideas of Jesus teaching, healing and risen are more positive. Hindus recognize that one infinite reality is inadequately revealed in many finite forms so Hinduism is the best candidate for a theistic revelation, apart from its one sect which insists that the ultimate divine form is blue, humanoid and male.

Despite this attempt to make sense of theology, I have to conclude by affirming my belief that we must do what we can without divine help and without any hope of a hereafter.

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