Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Many And The Few

The discussion a few posts ago fell into objections to the Christian notion of salvation exclusively for us. Many Christians would go even further - some days I don't think most of us are heaven-bound either. Not most of you, anyway. At other times I get quite universalist, figuring that most people everywhere will eventually get dragged into heaven somehow, or at worst will face eventual annihilation rather than hell. I don't think about the percentages much, because I haven't the foggiest idea. Are 90% of us going to heaven, or 10%? 99 or 1? Fifty-fifty, maybe? No clue. I think my fleeting mood or general temperament influences my impression too strongly to pretend to an objectivity. Certain Bible verses suggest that it's very few, even of us. Others would let many more off the hook.

What strikes me as odd is that this type of objection occurs rarely in history, though it is common now. Most peoples in most times and places have looked at this through the other end of the telescope. A Philistine running back to his tribe outraged that the Jews thought they were the chosen people, and we Philistines aren't would be laughed at in scorn. Well of course they do, you meathead. That's what everyone thinks about themselves. That's what we think, too. Except we really are. The pagan European tribes, African tribes, North American tribes that encountered Christianity wondered whether it was powerful enough to keep out the dark and evil. They were pretty much happy to go along with exclusivity if the new faith could deliver. There wasn't a resentment that their gods had been dissed so much as a doubt that anything could hold the malevolent world at bay for long. They didn't think it worked. Ancestor worship didn't develop because people thought the ancestors were nice, but because they thought them dangerous, resentful of the living, except perhaps at first.

The religions of the east regarded Christianity as a misunderstanding of reality, even a primitive misunderstanding. That the Christians thought they were the only ones going to heaven was regarded as faintly ridiculous, not insulting. Rather quaint, if anything. Resentments came later, on the basis of the behavior of Europeans, often at odds with their professed beliefs.

This doubt of the Christian claim came from observing nature and everyday life. Most species disappear, most animals die unfortunate deaths, as do most people. Life was painful, difficult - in Hobbes's phrase, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Those who object to the unfairness of Christianity might do better to regard the unfairness of nature instead. Most religions did not teach that everybody is going to a great heavenly reward, but that nobody's getting out. It's all suffering. That there is no heaven (Buddhism); that it is impossibly remote (Hinduism); that heaven itself has conflict and eventually collapses (Norse, other paganism); that there is only a hellish half-existence (animism); even monotheistic Islam has only a limited heaven, with girls and fruit but not much contact with God.

The Nietzschean and Freudian objections to Christianity are similar to the older views - we face annihilation but refuse to face that. Most human beings who have ever lived would regard that as a stronger and more likely objection. The known world is bad enough, and the unseen world impossibly frightening and dangerous.

This new idea, now quite common, that everyone should be going to eternal bliss (except maybe a few) may derive from our earthly prosperity. We think it should be normal for people to have general good health, nutrition, and peaceful existence up to our ninth decade, and that something has gone terribly wrong with the world for anyone who doesn't get that. We expect the universe to be benign, enough so that if some are poor, we blame the rich. Five hundred years ago, no one thought poverty or disease unusual. Tragic and terrible, yes. Much to be feared or avoided, certainly. But not surprising. Only those accustomed to wealth are surprised by poverty.

Ironically, this belief in the benign or at worst neutral universe likely derives from Christian ideas. Everyone in 1960 America was at least superficially religious, so nearly every funeral could reference heaven without snickering, at least openly. Even the worst of us looked as if he had some chance for eventual redemption and rescue. The Big Guy Upstairs was on our side, we all thought, and wished us well. He'd make it all come around right somehow, so have another drink.

Please note that nothing in the above argues for the truth or falsity of Christianity or the the existence of God. I'm just commenting on the people.

1 comment:

karrde said...

It is noteworthy that while the Scripture and the Apostles speak hopefully of all might be saved, they also appear to recognize that some will not be saved.

Not only that, but some could change from the path of the unsaved to the path of the saved due to the work of the Apostles teaching the Good News.

Who are the many and who are the few?

It cannot be known with certainty.

The level of rancor to be found among those who insist that they know who the many and few are is disturbing.

I almost dived into that thread; but I realized that you, AVI, and your son were handling things quite well.

As an aside...

I've been in such a discussion before, in the non-virtual world, with a young lady.

There was an overarching issue of attraction (based on commonalities) and a desire to better understand what we both believed and why we believed in that way.

Among other things, I discovered that she had an emotionally-charged response to the doctrine of Hell. And her response was that it was hateful for me to hold that doctrine. She said this without any thought about whether the doctrine was true or not. She only argued that it was a hateful doctrine.

For many reasons (this among them), we parted ways.

I don't want to say that I learned how to argue with such people; I will say that I think I have learned how hard it is to argue someone out of an opinion that they were never argued into in the first place.