Last Tuesday I spent two pleasant hours talking with a Christian philosophy professor, Thomas Talbott. Tom teaches at Salem’s Willamette University. We were introduced by philosopher/artist/writer Patricia Herron, a friend who was instrumental in getting me thinking about this here Church of the Churchless back in August 2004.
Pat, Tom, Don (a friend of Toms) and I got into lots of deep stuff during our conversation at the south Salem Beanery. Though my neurons were flying on the caffeinated wings of a grande vanilla latte, I really didn’t need any artificial stimulation to stay focused on the fascinating topics that we covered. Here’s a sampling:
God is love—all love. Tom has written a book called “The Inescapable Love of God” whose title just about says it all. He believes in the doctrine of universalism, a.k.a. universal reconciliation. In the first chapter of his book Tom says, “Against the many religious doctrines that appeal to and cultivate our fear, I shall urge upon my reader this simple proposition: Contrary to what we might fear, the Creator and Father of our souls—the Lord of hosts and King of kings—is good.”
Hallelujah! The good news Tom brings is that everyone ultimately will be saved, Christian and non-Christian alike. When I asked him to confirm that this included my pagan soul, I liked his answer: “Sure. In fact, you might be closer to salvation than I am.” Now we’re talking. I could get behind a Christianity that lets you be saved without becoming a Christian.
Divinity starts on the high end of humanity. I told Tom that I liked the notion that God is all love, because I’ve always believed that a God who isn’t as good as a decent human being isn’t worth having faith in. I mean, it’d be taking a cosmic step backwards to worship a judgmental, punishing God who arbitrarily plays favorites, since lots of people here on earth manifest superior qualities.
I’d suspected that this view of mine wasn’t original (what view is?), and got that suspicion confirmed when I read the first 25 pages of “The Inescapable Love of God” (a free PDF sample). For Tom says the same thing on p. 8:
“I knew instinctively that I could never worship a God who is less merciful, less kind, less loving than my own parents, but that is just what I seemed to encounter in the mainstream of Western theology: a God who, though gracious (after a fashion) to some (the elect), refuses to will the good for others (the non-elect). And I could not imagine my parents refusing to will the good for anyone.”
Of course, it isn’t just Western religions that have an exclusionary policy concerning who gets to ride on the God train back to heaven. The Eastern mystical group that I’ve been associated with, Radha Soami Satsang Beas, believes that unless you’re initiated by a “perfect living master,” you’re doomed. Nonetheless, my poor doomed wife, whom I like to call my lovely infidel, isn’t losing any sleep over this. According to Tom, her peaceful slumber is absolutely warranted.
Why is God so well hidden? I told Tom that I liked his omnibenevolent conception of God. However, if God cares about us so much, why is God so hidden from both our physical and spiritual eyes? A good parent doesn’t stay in the bedroom all of the time with the door closed, leaving his or her children to fend for themselves. How can we have a close relationship with God when there’s nobody evident to relate to?
Tom had a short answer: “God doesn’t care if we know that he exists. He wants us to learn how to love each other, and all else that has been brought into existence by God. To love the Son is to love the Father. We all are Sons of the Father, not just Jesus.” Not bad. I don’t know if this really is true, but the basic notion intuitively appeals to me. If earthly existence is a sort of school, then God, the headmaster, isn’t concerned with how much we know about him, but rather with how well we learn the big lesson of life—love.
However, I replied that if God is love, then getting a great big infusion of God-realization into my soul seemingly would both (1) enable me to know the nature of God, and (2) teach me what love is all about. On the other hand (my Libra-ness keeps coming out) I also observed that any creative force which can form an entire universe in the big bang and keep it banging away for fourteen billion years, with many more billions yet to come, probably is a tad too powerful for my psyche to touch directly. Some insulation between us and God is necessary, which could explain God’s invisibility.
You’re a sinner! I got a flavor of good old traditional fire-and-brimstone Christianity after I shared an example of how I had strayed from one of the commandments of my own spiritual group. Without missing a beat Tom thundered out, “You’re a sinner!” With a smile, of course. I’m tempted to tell you what I said, but for literary reasons I want to let the denouement of this story wait a while, building up some dramatic tension before my confession is revealed (don’t get too excited; my sin is pretty tame by modern sinning standards).
Tom spoke about a similar experience from his conservative Christian high school days. He says in his book that “at my high school, a good Christian was identified as someone who does not smoke, drink, dance (roller skating was ‘iffy’), play cards, or attend Hollywood movies.” However, after Tom became more heretical and independent he went to a John Wayne movie with a friend from another high school.
They enjoyed the movie. After it ended they were walking down the sidewalk when some of Tom’s Christian classmates approached from the other direction. “What are you up to?” the classmates said. Tom was tongue-tied, but his friend—unaware that going to a movie was a Christian no-no—blurted out, “Oh, we went to see a John Wayne movie.” Tom said that as soon as those words came out of his friend’s mouth he felt like everything inside of him shriveled up into a wad of shame.
Such is the power of a religious group. One moment you can be on your own doing something innocent that feels perfectly fine; the next moment group pressure, either inwardly or outwardly imposed, can leave you feeling like a horrible sinner. One action; two ways of looking at it.
I threw out for discussion my Desert Island Theory of Morality. The theory isn’t fully formed yet, since I made up most of it on the spot there at the coffee house. But it’s something I have thought about now and then—such as when I fantasize Angelina Jolie appearing on my doorstep, dressed in as little as my fantasy will allow.
I say “will allow,” because fantasies are situated in some sort of context. For example, Angelina and I are somewhere; I’m somebody—married or not married, much as I am now or wildly different. Now, my Desert Island Theory of Morality comes into play in this fashion: I imagine that I’m on a deserted island similar to that of the “Lost” TV series. I’m disconnected from every aspect of my current worldly life. And there’s no chance that I’ll ever be reconnected to that life again.
I’m starting fresh. No religious group to belong to. No family to be a part of. No job to work at. No friends to associate with. I’ve already got the necessities of life on the island, such as food, water, and shelter, but anything else above and beyond that will have to wash up on its shores.
Such as one day, praise God!, Angelina Jolie. And the same merciful power that brought her to me has instilled in her a passionate desire for a 56 year-old graying man. Double praise God!! The moral question becomes: what to do? What is right when you’re absolutely on your own (well, aside from Angelina), free to make your own moral decisions without having to worry about what other people think or how they will react to what you decide to do?
This is an interesting question. It’s too involved to explore in any detail here. I’ll simply observe that much of morality involves a concern with how our actions affect other people. Such is absolutely appropriate. I believe in marital fidelity. Almost always infidelity, when it’s discovered, causes pain to the offended spouse. One person’s pleasure shouldn’t be bought with another person’s pain.
But Tom’s anecdote about going to a movie points to the craziness of feeling guilty for doing something that should be guilt free. Often the only reason we feel guilty is because we’ve been illogically taught to feel that way. Religious and other social institutions have a vested interest in keeping firm control of their members. For if people feel free to follow their own well-calibrated moral compass, they also may feel free to leave the confines of the group that has established boundaries thou shalt not cross.
I’ve been a vegetarian for about thirty-six years. It would take a lot to get me to eat an animal. If that desert island had fruits and vegetables to keep me alive, a refrigerated container full of filet mignon and a French chef could wash up on the beach and I wouldn’t have the slightest interest in it. Really. I believe that the more our morality can be inwardly grounded rather than outwardly proscribed, as my vegetarianism is, the better.
Anyway, it was a delight to talk with Tom, Don, and Patricia. Near the end of our conversation, when I asked Tom if, given all his heretical views, he still considered himself to be a Christian, I liked how there was a slight stammer as he said, “Um, ah, yes, I am.” I could be wrong, but he seemed to be mentally defining Christianity in his mind (as a college professor should), deciding whether what he believes could reasonably be called Christian.
Tom is a churchless Christian, the best kind.