Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Monday, February 20, 2017

Christadelphians and the meaning of life

Last year I wrote a series of articles about finding meaning in life without God. I found it to be a very interesting topic to explore, and quite personal too. But until recently I had not spent much time thinking about how Christadelphians find meaning in life with God. It's one of those things that is often just assumed or taken for granted. Now obviously I cannot speak for other Christadelphians and I have no empirical data from which to draw any conclusions about them, but I can talk about what I found meaningful back when I was a Christadelphian, and perhaps some others will be able to relate to that.

The narrative

Perhaps the first thing to look at is what I will call the 'narrative'. This is the foundation story that underpinned my view of "how the world works". This served as a source of meaning for my life and also provided the categories for all of my experience to be pigeon-holed into. The narrative was both inherited and absorbed from my Christadelphian upbringing and also continually added to as I grew older. It formed a fairly coherent model of the world, and my place within it. Actually, much of the narrative now seems quite incoherent and nonsensical to me, but it definitely made sense at the time.

According to this narrative, as I remember it, I existed because God had created a universe including the planet Earth (among many other things) and had populated it with people who he wanted to give him glory. Since God did not just want robots, he had given these people free will. However, they had disobeyed him, and so all of humanity along with everything else in the world were punished by God, as a penalty for their disobedience. This explained why I got sick, even disobeyed my own parents, and also why people died. But all was not lost. God, in his mercy, had provided humanity with a way to redeem themselves. That is, God had a (human) son, named Jesus, who was born of a woman, and because Jesus did not sin he was eventually taken up to heaven by God and given eternal life. Through Jesus the way to redemption had been opened and the punishment placed on Adam and Eve could be reversed. By identifying with Jesus through baptism I could partake in that redemption and be once again reconciled back to God to share in a future kingdom of paradise just as God had originally intended for all of humanity. This was God's provided way for all humans, despite our many sins and fallen nature, to be reconciled back to him and to enjoy life the way it was originally intended, free of suffering, pain, and sorrow. To help along the way were angels, who were invisible messengers of God (and perhaps beings who had been chosen as worthy of eternal life after a similar story to ours in the distant past). I also had the facility of prayer, to communicate directly with God himself, through the mediator-ship of Jesus.

The flipside of this narrative was that just as Adam and Eve were given a divine test in the garden of Eden, so too this life was my test and I had to daily choose whether to follow God's ways or whether to follow my fallen human nature. It became a constant struggle to go against the "inclinations of the flesh" and to "choose life", but with God on my side it was a battle I could win if only I kept reading the Bible and praying regularly. When I inevitably failed, I could pray to God for forgiveness and he would lovingly forgive, so long as I was truly sorry.

God had also provided the ecclesia (the Christadelphian word for 'church', emphasising the people rather than the building) to assist in that walk towards God's kingdom, and that ecclesia also provided the opportunity to serve God now, by serving my brothers and sisters. As in the words of Jesus, my thoughts and actions towards my brothers and sisters were effectively against Jesus himself, and that would be the primary basis on which I would be judged when he returned to set up God's kingdom. My entire life revolved around my desire to be accepted at that time, and if I departed from the right path I would surely be rejected. Rejection at "the judgement seat of Christ" was surely the worst possible thing that could ever happen to me. The Bible described it as involving "weeping and gnashing of teeth". I therefore aimed to live a life patterned on the example left behind by Jesus, and also serve my brothers and sisters so that we could all be accepted as worthy when Jesus returned.

For the most part, this really described my entire worldview in a nutshell. But it was more than a worldview. It was also more than a belief system. Oozing from this narrative was the foundation for all of the meaning that I derived from my life. My life meant worshipping God, following Christ, serving my brothers and sisters, and hoping to be accepted by Jesus. I suspect I was not the only one.

If you're a Christadelphian, the narrative I described above probably sounds perfectly normal. If you're not a Christadelphian, but still Christian, it probably sounds like blatant heresy. If you're not a Christadelphian nor a Christian, it's probably one of the strangest things you've ever read. There are very few points of contact between this narrative and objective reality, except perhaps for the idea of helping other people, which one can do just as well without religion.

God was at the centre

One of the first things that jumps out from the narrative above is that I, as a person, don't really feature in it. I mean, if I wanted the reward, the narrative provided the answer to how to get there. But what about who I was, and what my interests and desires were? Where did I fit in this picture? I think the narrative answer was that I had been chosen by God (but not because of any particular ability or trait that I had - after all God had given me those and could change them at will), and if accepted worthy I would be employed in his service for eternity. Of course God didn't "need" me in the true sense, because an omnipotent being surely doesn't really need anything. This was an act of mercy on God's part, and almost purely for my benefit, although I would be contributing (in some tiny way) to the overall glory-giving that the saved were said to do. The earth, after all, was created to be filled with God's glory, and the kingdom was a central part of that.

In my current opinion this is not a particularly satisfying future to look forward to, and although many Christadelphians offer lip-service to it (as did I), I don't think anyone really looks forward to this particular aspect of "the kingdom", unless the slave-like aspects of it are downplayed and the social/humanitarian aspects promoted. Yes, we'd all be very thankful to any being that freed us from our current condition and gave us a paradise to live in. But the point is that I'm not really sure where I, the person, the human being, fit in this picture.

In this narrative, God was at the centre, and everything else was secondary. I was told that God loved us, but that it was "God manifestation" (in other words, "being like God") and not "human salvation" that was important. I never did discover where personality differences came in, or our various other strengths and weaknesses. Did God even care about those? Why would he? Apparently many of these differences, and especially differences in ability, would be significantly reduced or perhaps even removed completely in the kingdom. It was thus not very clear to me why those differences should exist now, and what purpose they should serve.

The interesting part of all of this is how much of myself I was willing to give up in order to live forever. I'm not saying it's necessarily wrong or even irrational. It's just an observation that at the present time I'm not entirely comfortable with. Is there a price too high for eternal life?

What is your life worth to you?

I think one of the biggest problems with the Christadelphian narrative is that this life is devalued, and the "next" life is oversold. All Christadelphians are very light on details about what the hypothetical kingdom might involve, and that is because the Bible itself is very light on details. The emphasis is very much on why Christadelphians should look forward to it, rather than whether or not it is actually likely to happen.

There also seems to be a kind of blind belief in the existence, capability, and benevolence of God, such that Christadelphians are sure it would all work out in their favour. This is despite the Bible, which they believe this same God authored, suggesting that God is responsible for the creation of every disease, and is the direct cause of natural disasters. If the Bible was actually true (and I absolutely don't think it is), the god it describes would be the least trustworthy and most malevolent being that ever existed.

But leaving that aside, whether or not you believe the afterlife is true makes a huge difference to how you live your life now. It affects how much effort you're likely to put into your education, your career, and self-improvement in general. There are many verses in the Bible that directly condemn the accumulation of wealth, and it's clear that some Christadelphians take these verses more seriously than others.

As a direct result of being taught that the kingdom was all that mattered, and not to seek earthly wealth, I grew up having very little ambition in life beyond just doing enough to make ends meet. Of course I still wanted a comfortable life, but in many ways I wasn't prepared to put any real effort in because I absorbed the belief that those earthly things were not important. "Take no thought for your life" and so on. I made major life decisions based on these beliefs that I had inherited, and I surely am not the only one. To make matters worse, those who preached these ideas to me often had very nice houses, jobs, cars, boats, you name it. They also travelled the world at great expense, which makes very little sense if they believed they were going to live forever here. Weren't they the ones who preached about giving up the "pleasures of this life"? Sometimes I really wonder if those of us who took the religion seriously were actually being punk'd.

When I stopped believing in an afterlife, I suddenly cared about this life a LOT more. My priorities changed dramatically, and so did some of my interests. I cared a lot more about other people, especially those who were suffering. I also cared a lot more about the future of my country and even the future of humanity on this precious planet. Putting all of this together, I cannot help but feel that my Christadelphian belief in an afterlife actually robbed this life of much of its meaning. It took this amazing existence, with all its joys and sorrows, and replaced it with a cheap story-line.

The meaning of (the Christadelphian) life

As I've already mentioned, the ultimate meaning of my life as a Christadelphian was to do whatever it took to be accepted into the kingdom and live forever in paradise (on earth), and secondarily to serve and worship God forever in thanks for this "gift". Obviously I meant to list these the other way around. God manifestation... God manifestation... Thy will, not mine... etc.

But I think I did derive some meaning from my life as a Christadelphian (i.e. in this life), regardless of what was promised for the future. It was not all sacrifice and teeth-gritting. However, it wasn't always positive and healthy either. There were some positive things, but they were arguably derived purely from the practical aspects of the religion (and thus could in principle be duplicated outside of religion). Meanwhile the negative things had a lot to do with core religious doctrines. Let's start with the good points.

As a Christadelphian, I had some close friends who I grew up with, and had the opportunity to meet many other young people through organised activities and camps. It's much easier to make friends when you see the same people regularly, and I have many fond memories of the friendships I formed over the years. I also often enjoyed singing the hymns, and in general I found the overall experience of helping others to be quite meaningful. This lifestyle ticked many boxes such as working together for a common goal, and also even feeling like we were making a difference in the world. We had the message of salvation and we were sharing that good news with those "outside" in the world, to anyone who would listen. It really did feel like we were offering hope to a world that desperately needed it.

On the negative side, I derived some rather unhealthy meaning from the struggle against sin. According to the narrative, sin was a constant reminder of my imperfect nature, which was a reminder of Adam's disobedience (now reflected in my own sins as well). So long as I felt inclinations to do things that were contrary to God's ways as taught by Christadelphians and as defined in the Bible, the struggle against those things continued to add meaning to my life. I guess it also served to reinforce the entire narrative. If the struggle was real, then surely the solution was real as well. Thus, according to the narrative, the only way to ease the immense guilt I felt was to get on my knees (sometimes literally) and beg, by which I mean 'pray', for forgiveness. This also served to reinforce my feeling of worthlessness and vindicate God. It was only through God's pity mercy that I could be forgiven, and not for any virtue of my own, so any feeling of intrinsic self-worth was systematically eradicated. My self-worth was replaced by the vague feeling that God considered me worth forgiving, but since I couldn't see or hear God the only way to determine whether I had actually been forgiven was to imagine it.

Misfortune and hardship in life were also meaningful, as Hebrews 12 explains:
“My son, do not scorn the Lord’s discipline or give up when he corrects you. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son he accepts.”
Hebrews 12:5-6 NET
This is eerily close to Stockholm Syndrome, but I was unaware of that at the time. When life became hard (which, sadly, was quite often for me), I interpreted it as either correction from God, or a test from God. By the twisted logic of Hebrews 12 this meant God must love me or at least care about me. I could reference many passages from the book of Job where I interpreted events in my life similarly to the way Job's friends interpreted events in his. Or if that failed, there was also the way God replied to Job, which was effectively to say that since Job didn't know everything, he was in no position to question God (who apparently did know everything and had a very good reason for punishing Job that he evidently failed to mention).

Then there was the ending of the book of Job where Job was blessed with more than what he had before, which I think provides a very meaningful narrative to religious people everywhere. That is, if they just hold fast to their faith throughout their struggles and hardships in this life, they will be rewarded in the next one. Again, beliefs such as this have prevented people from attempting to improve their circumstances many, many times throughout history.

What went wrong?

There are so many ways that my Christadelphian narrative reinforced itself and prevented me from ever questioning its truth. For many years I only saw choices such as between serving God and serving myself, and never stopped to think about what those choices would mean if, for example, the Bible was simply a book written by superstitious humans. The pull of an afterlife in paradise was so powerful that I never seriously questioned whether it was real. The narrative provided comfort in the face of adversity, but simultaneously caused some of that adversity. It first heaped guilt upon me, and then offered a weak and difficult solution. It told me that I could never be completely free without Jesus, and that my life had no meaning without the narrative. All of this kept me from questioning too deeply.

But at some point I did start to change my beliefs, and if you wind the clock back even further there was a time when I started to question whether my beliefs were true. I don't know what it was that triggered those questions, and I probably will never know. But I can say that whatever meaning the narrative provided for my life, that meaning was only valid if the narrative was true. Some people may well be able to derive meaning from their beliefs even if those beliefs could turn out to be false, but I was not one such person. In order for my life to be meaningful, my beliefs absolutely had to be true. Otherwise I could have been fooling myself, and potentially giving up my life for a lie. If the narrative was not true, then any attempt to comfort myself by imagining a future paradise fell flat. If I couldn't be reasonably sure the narrative was true, then I needed another narrative that sat on firmer foundations. It was no good struggling through life telling myself that I would "probably" be given a better life after I died. I wanted to be sure of what I was committing to.

It's important to point out that while I was questioning my beliefs, I generally reasoned in terms of truth, and not meaning. My narrative also underwent several major and minor revisions even while I remained a Christadelphian, so it isn't as though I discarded everything in one go. It was a very gradual process overall, and took almost 2 years. For most of that time the basic structure of the narrative remained the same, but specific details changed dramatically. I still believed in a god who would offer salvation from death if I behaved in a certain way and said certain things. Eventually though, I began to doubt the reliability of the book that described both this god and his offer of salvation, and I couldn't be sure the book was not purely of human origin. So I became agnostic.

What went wrong? That's a matter of perspective, but I would argue that nothing went wrong. Rather, some things started to go right. Rather than blindly believing what I had been taught as a child I started to become interested in the world I lived in, and more importantly I became interested in how I might determine what was actually true while avoiding self-deception as much as possible. I became more interested in testing and verifying my beliefs rather than "taking things on faith". I became more interested in finding truth even if the process was uncomfortable or painful. I started reading about evolution with the intent to understand it at least as well as those who accepted it. I started reading books about the Bible that challenged my prior beliefs, and when I did that I started discovering things about the Bible that were widely accepted by scholars, but not widely known by Christadelphians. I became much more interested in tangible, empirical evidence rather than arguments and plausibility/"how it might have been" scenarios.

Eventually after almost 2 years of revision, my narrative became barely recognisable compared to what it was before. Gone was any notion of absolute truth or certainty. Gone were faith-based claims and plausibility arguments. Gone were unfalsifiable and unverifiable beliefs, as much as practically possible. The elements of meaning and purpose took longer to recreate, because there was so much to learn. I discovered that meaning and purpose are not one-size-fits-all products that exist out in the universe somewhere waiting to be found. Rather they come from within us, and are unique to each of us. My life takes on more meaning every day, and my purposes are many and varied. It is true that one day I will die and my purpose and meaning will cease to matter (except perhaps in the lives of others, and so on). But for as long as I'm alive, my purpose and meaning matter an awful lot to me. A finite life becomes infinitely more valuable, and I want to enjoy my time in the sun. If I can also help others to enjoy theirs too, so much the better.

An ex-Christadelphian narrative

I began this article with a narrative describing my former view of the world, a view largely inherited from other Christadelphians. That narrative provided the framework for my life, how I lived, what I thought about, and even how I interpreted good and bad times.

I now operate under a different narrative. One that is more flexible and fluid in some ways. It is built on different methods, and a different approach to truth. It features uncertainty and doubt as core elements. This is not a script, and I don't try to reinforce these things as dogma. It's just a collection of things that I find meaningful. So let me describe them for you now...

I am a primate, of the species Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Just one species among many (numbering well into the millions), all of which live on a single planet. Our planet, Earth, orbits a nearby star, which is just one of 100 billion stars in its parent galaxy, which is just one of 2 trillion galaxies in the observable universe. Our best observations and calculations suggest that our universe began about 13.8 billion years ago in an event we call The Big Bang. What happened before that, we don't know. Leading theories suggest that our universe may be just one of many, although this is highly speculative and may be beyond the reach of what we can test, at least with current technology. As far as I can reliably tell, there is no evident purpose to the universe.

The incredible vastness of the universe and the staggering number of stars and planets make me feel extremely insignificant, and yet the universe is incredibly significant to me. The history of the universe tells a fascinating story and the history and diversity of life on this planet provides a huge amount of meaning for my life. I am distantly related to all living things, and I am profoundly interconnected with nature and the universe, not separate from it. All of the atoms in my body were formed inside dying stars via nuclear fusion in the distant past.

In the words of Carl Sagan,
"We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We're made of star stuff"
This poetry resonates deep within me.

I do not see humanity as fallen from some perfect state. We are primates, with very humble beginnings. It is fascinating that we have made it this far, and our momentum is not slowing down.
"We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted to battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses."
Robert Ardrey
Probably humanity's greatest achievement was the method(s) by which we have been able to understand and transform the world. The scientific method, which incorporates the collection of data, the testing of hypotheses, the criteria of falsifiability, the peer-review process to systematically weed out errors, and the ongoing publication of results, has revolutionised the world. We are now far less superstitious, and in just 100 years we have gone from horse-drawn carriages to exploring our solar system and beyond! Not only do we know more about the universe, but through systematic verification, we know that we know it. No scientific fact has ever been overturned by religion. It is always the reverse. This is because religion makes many claims but it is unable to verify a single one.

Many people still cling to the old superstitions, however. Despite modern medicine curing far more diseases than prayer, people still pray. But after many billions of prayers and rituals, children still die of hunger, good people still suffer incredible harm, natural disasters still wipe out millions of people (and animals) and the only improvements we have seen to health and well-being have arisen when we stopped chanting incantations to the sky and started using science to produce the cures and technology ourselves. The majority of our healing happens daily in our hospitals, and the only "miracles" are produced by the hard work of our excellent medical staff.

I still struggle sometimes, but instead of cowering in fear before an imagined vengeful god I choose to empower myself through healthier thinking patterns and the many tools I've learned from modern psychology. My morality is based on secular values, and my meaning and purpose come from humanism's goal of creating a better world for everyone, along with a lot of other things. There is meaning in shared experience, in helping others, in hobbies, in laughter, even in sorrow, and in raising the next generation of adults. I don't need someone to tell me what I should find meaningful based on an iron age book. I create my own meaning, and I live life on my own terms as much as I can. My life is so much more relaxed now than ever before, and so much more free.

My life is finite, but infinitely valuable and meaningful to me. I am not aware of any real afterlife, but I have this life, and if that's all there is then I'll take it and celebrate it.