Thursday 27 August 2015

Utopian religion (and the Christian utopia defined)

Religions that successfully seek volunteer converts may do so by offering a 'utopia' - or at least a better situation than the convert currently has - this seems like the right thing to do, as a first step (of course it is not the only thing to do).

So for Christians seeking converts, it is worth establishing very early whether a person realizes that they should be expecting eternal life (that is what will happen to them) - specifically eternal life as them-selves potentially perfected, in a perfected resurrected body; and then to establish whether they want that life to be as a Son or Daughter of God (that is, as a substantially divine personage)?

And that this 'God' under discussion is a God of Love, primarily and always. And love means relationships.

Mormons need to make clear that they are 'offering' an eternal family life.

If a potential convert does not want to live as a Son or Daughter to a Loving God - if they have some other hope or preference (e.g. for solitude, or to have their self-consciousness dissolved into bliss) then they probably don't want to be Christian.

So, perhaps Christians need to start by sketching out their Utopia, stating clearly This Is What We Offer.

So first the religious utopia, and only then the decision; first know and understand the claims of religion, and only then, proceed to the evaluation of those claims.

1. First understand the advantages - the Pros

2. Then understand the disadvantages - the Cons (the requirements of a convert, the limitations etc).

3. Only then, if the potential convert likes the sound of it, only if the religion offers to provide something that he or she wants, the potential convert should investigate the truth and validity of these claims.

After all, what is the point of evaluating something you do not want; how can you know if you want it when you do not know what it is; how can you evaluate something you neither know about nor understand?

My point is that there is no point in discussing the truth of Christianity or evidence for or against the validity of Christianity until after Christianity has been understood. It is a waste of time and opportunity. And Christianity ought to be understood in terms of what Christianity offers, not in terms of anything else.

In particular it is an error to try and prove that Christianity is true, before a person has decided whether they want it to be true, or understand what it is.

And what Christianity is, has not much to do with theology and a great deal to do with what happens after you die.

This is nothing new, but was probably the usual way that Christian converts were won from paganism in the early centuries of the church. The missionary or evangelist would start by demonstrating that Christianity offered more, far more, than paganism.

They started by making clear the fact that (as Blaise Pascal stated so clearly in his Pensees), if they understand it, most people would want Christianity to be true.

And if people have not realized that fact - i.e. that if Christianity was true, then they would want it - then they probably don't understand Christianity - although, as I say above a minority people do not want what Christianity offers because they do not want to remain persons or do not want to become divinized or live with God or their families - In sum, there are people who do not want to continue having relationships after death.

But Christianity is mostly about loving relationships continued after death - that is the Christian utopia; and if people do not want loving relationships at the heart of their eternal lives. then Christianity is not for them.


Adam G. said...

This is why so many atheist attacks seem so pointless. Not because they are wrong, though they are that, but because they are usually so peripheral.

Nicholas Fulford said...


If Christianity is true, should I choose it because I want it, (i.e. for the personal rewards)?

This does not seem like a particularly noble reason, nor it is its opposite to avoid personal suffering. Almost any animal will choose to receive a reward and or to avoid punishment. A few conditioning experiments demonstrate the truth of that. So choosing a religion to receive personal rewards and avoid personal suffering is not a good reason.

So why should a person join a religion and practice its tenets?

One good reason may be that the teachings and practices - if followed - lead to less fighting and more charity amongst people and peoples. This is a better reason because the appeal is with regard to how the practicing the way of the religion transforms individuals and communities. The process of transformation is not always an easy one and may entail delaying the pursuit of gratification as well as the endurance of some suffering. So why would anybody do that rather than following the primitive path of desire for reward and avoidance of suffering? Because the path accrues less immediately tangible benefits, such as being meaningful, encouraging working for goods that are not simply the perceived and immediate good on the self.

If I were to join a religion it would be because I saw that in its practice people transformed into better, kinder, more vital individuals. It would be because in its practice it transformed to permit recognition of meaning that sustained both the community and the individual in difficult times.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NF - I think your comment exemplifies my point - you seemingly don't want what Christianity has to offer, because Christianity is primarily about eternity; not primarily about the span of mortal life.

David said...

In defence of NF what he is describing/seeking does seem like a good reason to follow a religion and Christianity can provide what he is looking for i.e. a way of life that is transformative, meaningful and that is  "working for goods that are not simply the perceived and immediate good on the self." All things that modern secular society does not provide and which people are feeling deeply in the modern world as an unmet spiritual need, even when expressed unconsciously by cyclic hedonistic abandonment with temporary intoxication, distractions, etc. But that would only be a very impoverished thing indeed and without the essense of what Christianity is at all. In fact, this seems to be what I have seen with Christians I have met who build schools in Africa but on closer questioning don't seem to believe in life after death, or if they do it is something embarrassing and rarely mentioned.

David said...

When it comes to eternity though I do have a great deal of sympathy for secular people in the modern world who do not 'want it' because they cannot conceive of what Christianity is offering and because they have no frame of reference. I would regard myself as a Christian now but I have to admit I still do struggle to imagine what the eternal perspective would entail from my normal level of consciousness. It is inconceivable to the human mind to imagine how a meaningful concrete personal identity can be perpetuated eternally in full awareness without it actually becoming a kind of hell and not a heaven. Am I alone in this? So for that reason I can vividly recall being unable to see the Christian vision of a heaven of lived, meaningful relationships between separate souls with individual identities as some kind of misty-eyed la-la-land, a psychological comfort zone to go to for refuge when the bleak harshness of the finality of mortality weighs too heavily on the fragile human psyche. For similar reasons I could just about imagine an abstracted eternal 'consciousness' and of Nirvana as a kind of physics-like abstraction, a hard won Oasis in the spiritual wilderness to be sought diligently to achieve what Wittgenstein described as 'letting the fly out of the bottle.'

What didn't occur to me at the time is that I might actually be experiencing a 'failure of the imagination,' inculcated and sustained by a steady diet of secular education. Einstein himself championed the value of imagination over knowledge and I tend to agree with him although with no doubt not as great an intellect to back my musings. When one imagines what can exist in relation to oneself it can be a most edifying experience. I have at moments of clarity glimpsed the possibilities of heavenly life and felt a deep resonant quality to the experiences. I have sometimes awoken from a reverie or a dream and recalled fragments of a higher order of thinking that transcends our own familiar conscious states. Again had this happened to others? For example, a recollection of instantaneous non-verbal communication in dream states and of a deeper intuitive understanding of the meaning and purpose of human life which evaporates on waking, but which leaves the distinct sense of a reality equal to our own, if not of merely another kind. These encounters are easily deconstructed and dismissed in the cold-light-of-day but that is not the point. A fact that I had stubbornly neglected to acknowledge as a stalwart reductionist and skeptic for many a year. The problem is however is that reductionism is just a blunt intellectual tool: good at taking things to bits but not good at putting things back together. Now imagination though, that is a different matter altogether; it is creation in macrocosm for a human being but also holds the key to hidden knowledges, a way to transcend the incorrect misconceptions of the banal, the herd allegiance to doggedly plowing the same intellectual tracks fruitlessly, it is no less than the leap of faith which secures new horizons of human knowledge and possibility and this is what Christianity is offering. One must believe that eternal life is possible before it can be so in actuality. Just as the wheel had the be conceived as a possibility before its first recorded actuality in the physical world! Cultivating imagination is a crucial step to delineating the possibilities of clearer insight...Da Vinci's inventions would never have known form without this developed capacity. Similarly we cannot conceive of the divine without exercising our capacity to look beyond the everyday and imagine what actually is 'out there' waiting to be discovered like heaven itself and such wonderful eternal love, all real but imagination can fail to perceive...One may as well be a Mayan Engineer claiming the wheel is impossible :-)

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - I think you have put your finger on it. There are many, most, people who would want what Christianity 'offers' if they could understand it; but understanding it is not a matter of learning facts and being able to answer questions - it is *primarily* a matter of being able to imagine it.

And it is a primary aim of modern culture to prevent this imagining - and indeed to discredit imagination except as rest and recreation - and in this aim modern culture has succeeded very substantially. Things that used to be easily and naturally imagined have now become all-but impossible for many people to imagine.

Seijio Arakawa said...

"Things that used to be easily and naturally imagined have now become all-but impossible for many people to imagine."

To my horror, this decline of the imagination also seems to have a baleful impact on the quality of Christian belief.

Consider the redemption of the animal world as alluded to by St. Paul -- which seems fairly obvious and also not terribly important as a consequence of the promise of a new Heaven and new Earth. Being both self-evident to prior ages as a matter of simply imagining what a new Earth entails, and also guaranteed independently of human will, it was never a topic of much dogmatic bickering or definitions. It was the question of human redemption, which was always all the more under question, that was therefore all the more a topic of discussion and doctrinal elaboration.

And so, those Christians in the modern day who cannot imagine what it is they can hope for, do not have any explicit doctrines that can justify what seemed perfectly obvious to hope for to Christians of generations past. This is catastrophic -- as time goes on, we need more reasons to hope for more things (our confidence in what is merely visible being justifiably shattered), but the tendency in the development (or degeneration) of faith is to 'defend the faith' by doubling-down on logic that demands fewer and fewer people to hope for less and less.

What should I make, for instance, of notable Thomist Ed Feser's blog posts arguing that there is no animal life of any kind in the new Heaven and the new Earth? (See: -- The argument, stripped of Aristotelian pretensions, boils down to asking "if dogs and cats, then why not tapeworms, and leeches, and all kind of other disgusting filth?") I pilloried these arguments on my blog when I first noticed them, but what new thing has come into the world (or gone out of it) and made them possible for any Christian to entertain?

Relying solely on logic and not a jot of imagination, Feser reasons in the Aristotelian fashion solely from the natures of animals as observed in the fallen world, and is incapable of imagining that they could ever be actually different. If it's in the nature of a lion to devour the lamb, it is always in the nature of a lion to devour the lamb, and a lion capable of lying down with the lamb peacefully is not a real lion. It appears that mere philosophy is stuck saying that a thing is what it is, and it takes imagination to imagine it ever being something different.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ara - A very good point.