Agnostics Anonymous

Spiritual Questions & Answers

Discovering inner health and transformation

The popular view of an agnostic, I suppose, is of some poor devil who simply cannot make up his mind whether God exists, or not. Most dictionaries, however, tend to offer a more positive definition. Chambers, for example, holds that an agnostic is “one who holds that we know nothing of things beyond material phenomena.” He might, therefore fervently believe that God does indeed exist, but that we have no such evidence and that we are unlikely to find any – in this world, at any rate.

The term ‘agnostic’ (in contrast to ‘gnostic’) I find, was first used by T.H.Huxley in 1869, though there is mention of an inscription “To an unknown God” in the book of Acts 17,23. The term has also been used to include the more extreme view that knowledge in general can only be applied to what is available to the senses: everything else being irrelevant. Any agnostics found lurking in our churches would scarcely go that far. Others may feel pretty sure that God probably doesn’t exist, but are nevertheless quite prepared to be convinced otherwise.

When I contemplate the immensity of infinite space with its innumerable galaxies, I may find it impossible not to think that somebody must be in control. At the same time, it may also seem equally impossible to concede that anybody is in control. Whether that ‘body’ is masculine, feminine or neuter simply defies human imagination.

Most church-goers, of course, are not plagued with such ambivalent misgivings. They have presumably long ago been totally persuaded, or have persuaded themselves that God, in some shape or form, undoubtedly exists, if not in bodily shape then maybe in some other way.

In this latter case the agnostic’s problem may be somewhat diminished. I suspect that some dubious agnostics, who are also devout church-goers, may attend in the hope that Christian conviction may rub off on them, as it were by a process of osmosis. Such aspiration, I hasten to say, is by no means the same as what a true worshipper experiences as devotion. It can nevertheless be sincere and heartfelt.

However, our benighted agnostic may already have made up his mind that church-goers, though possibly on the right lines, are much too glib altogether. He will seek his evidence elsewhere – in the wonders of the natural world perhaps. Do they speak of God?

The world is full of remarkable things and contains great mysteries – but they prove nothing. Nature might, after all, well, have just happened – sort of emerged ever so slowly all by itself as Darwin and Dawkins eloquently suggest. Then there is the notion that maybe it all stands for something else. Perhaps our planet is a great treasure-chest full of symbols, all of which hold-hands and spell out some almighty ‘spiritual’ story. One day the divine story-teller himself will explain it all – that would surely clinch the matter.

Agnosticism is a perilous addiction, for which no cure is infallible: it requires excellent balance like learning to ride an unswerving holy bicycle: it is so easy to fall for a religious faith on one side or slide into atheism on the other. Such are the perils of uncertainty, the demands of honesty can make for a bumpy passage.

There are many perfectly good and virtuous reasons for regular church-going, not all of which are necessarily theological. A love of church music can be a powerful incentive, especially where there is a good organ and an impressive choir. Tradition and liturgy can impart great comfort in a changing – often threatening – world. The discussion of moral problems helps to stimulate the brain and maintain a caring social conscience. Some of us enjoy holy theatre, and are moved by ritual. Some like to keep up with the local news: the church may often be the best social club in town, and the incumbent an ever-present comfort in times of trouble. But, I wonder, though it is none of my business, may not some of these good people perhaps harbour the guilty secret that they are not always, absolutely certain that God exists?

Sitting on fences is never an easy stance to maintain, since it is, I suppose, an intellectual position without a great deal of support. A true religious faith, on the other hand, is altogether more heartfelt, arising from emotional springs deeply grounded in the human soul. The agnostic needs all the help he can get: fortunately, he gets along very happily with others of a like disposition.

Christian agnostics, being scarce and hard to identify, probably pose the greatest challenge and problem to the believer. But the mysteries of Incarnation are much too deep to fathom here.

Copyright 2010 G Roland Smith

http://www.spiritualquestions.org.uk/

Posted on31st October 2011CategoriesMeaning of life, ReligionTags,, , , , , ,, , , , , Leave a comment

Divine Love and Wisdom

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The middle, the core, the essence of God is love. This divine love is the transcendent “stuff” that drives, creates, and sustains everything – all things that exist on all planes of existence.

Love wants to work, to flow, to create happiness. How does it do it? Through wisdom. The power of the divine love can be formed and ultimated by operating through divine wisdom.

There’s a marriage between the two – divine love and divine wisdom. Swedenborg refers to them in Latin terms, as the Esse and Existere, roughly translated in English as Essence and Existence.

This conjunction, or marriage, is at the very heart of it all. It is represented in the successive degrees of creation, down to the physical universe, and in life on earth. In our minds, there is love, and there is wisdom. If we unite our good loves to wise thinking, we’re then able to create happiness, too, each in our own unique way.

http://newchristianbiblestudy.org/


The Human Understanding – A Refining Vessel

Lastchurch - The Eternal Purpose

From True Christian Religion ~ Emanuel Swedenborg

A man’s knowledge of God is his mirror of God, and that those who know nothing about God do not see God in a mirror with its face toward them, but in a mirror with its back toward them; and as this is covered with quicksilver, or some dark paste; it does not reflect the image but extinguishes it.

Faith in God enters into man through a prior way, which is from the soul into the higher parts of the understanding; while knowledges about God enter through a posterior way, because they are drawn from the revealed Word by the understanding, through the bodily senses; and these inflowings meet midway in the understanding; and there natural faith, which is merely persuasion, becomes spiritual, which is real acknowledgment. Thus the human understanding is like a refining vessel, in which this transmutation is effected.

(True Christian Religion 11:3)
April 20, 2017

Being born again?

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A marvel in nature: a fern unfolds.

Beginning a new life is – in some ways – the ONE spiritual topic that people have to get right.

In John, there’s the famous statement by Jesus: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3).

What does Jesus mean? He’s saying that we all need to – with the Lord’s help – stop doing evil things, and start doing good things. When we do that, we are essentially being reborn spiritually.

Some Christian churches teach that this process of rebirth happens at the moment that we accept Jesus Christ has our personal savior; other churches teach that it happens little by little, over time, as we root out bad habit and bad thought patterns, and develop good ones.

There’s much more that could be said on this topic, but… one thing that we’ve encountered recently that will be of interest to many Bible readers is the “Begin a New Life” workshop developed by Rev. Mark Pendleton, in Illinois, USA.

It’s easy to want to change your life, but it’s not easy to actually do it. Mark has developed – during many years as a pastor – a universal, faith-based program that helps you make and sustain any life change that you want or need to make—one or two changes at a time.

Here’s what he says about it: “It doesn’t matter how big or small the change is, this program can help. As you go through the program for different issues in your life, your life is steadily, even miraculously transformed—from outside in, and inside out. You grow in personal clarity and power to choose, and you rise to new levels of hope and promise that are meaningful and real.”

One inspirational passage that helps drive the first step in the program is found in Psalms 139:23-24.

This link will take you to the home page for this program: http://www.beginanewlife.info

http://newchristianbiblestudy.org/

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Why do so many different religions exist in the world?

The clearer our picture of how to serve the neighbor, the closer to God we can become.

Q

Is there one “right” religion?

a

Yes, but it doesn’t exist simply with one group or one church. The right religion is simply this: to love our Creator and all the people He created. Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Matthew 22:37-40). In other words the whole point of religion is to learn to love and serve God and the neighbor. At their core, all religions come back to the same thing: love and serve God and the neighbor. That doesn’t mean all religions are equally true or good. Some religions seem to have a clearer understanding of how to love and serve God and the neighbor while some lead away from this principle. The clearer our picture of how to serve the Lord and neighbor are closer to God we can become.

Q

Can people from different religions go to heaven?

a

Getting to heaven isn’t simply a matter of having the right beliefs, or doing the right rituals, or calling the Divine by a specific name. You can’t get to heaven without doing what God wills. A person who professes belief in Jesus as Lord but breaks His commandments really isn’t a follower of Christ at all. Is a Muslim who refrains from murder and theft because they are sins against God any different from a Christian who refrains from murder and theft because they sins against God? One says “Allah” instead of “Lord,” but aren’t they both following the will of God, the Heavenly Father of all of us? Anyone who refrains from evil because it is against God and does good because it is from God is following the will of God and has the Kingdom of God within him.

Q

Why do many religions exist? Is it on purpose or an accident?

a

The different religions are based on the different responses people have to God over time. Even in these different responses, certain universal truths are common among them. Truth, by definition, comes from God. Jesus said, “And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16). New Church theology teaches: “When a religion has been implanted in a nation, the Lord leads that nation according to the precepts and dogmas of its own religion. He has provided that there shall be in every religion precepts like those in the Ten Commandments…. The nation that regards these precepts as Divine and lives according to them from a religious motive is saved” (Divine Providence 254). Mixed in with those true teachings may be many false teachings. The point is that the Lord is present and leads all people through the true teachings of their religions.


https://newchurch.org/

Rev. Barry Halterman is the Religion Department Chair at the Academy of the New Church High School in Bryn Athyn, PA (www.ancss.org). He is also Assistant Pastor at New Church LIVE (www.newchurchlive.tv).

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A Heavy Cross or an Easy Yoke?

 

Yoke

Matt Walsh has a typically provocative post up on The Blaze entitled “If you find it easy to be a Christian, you probably aren’t one.” Is he right? There are certainly passages from the New Testament that would seem to suggest so. Jesus did say,

If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24).

But there are other New Testament passages that seem to suggest the opposite, that the Christian life should be easy. Most notable are Jesus’ words in Matthew:

Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).

So which is it? Is the Christian life a heavy cross or a light burden? The answer, of course, is both. But the “easiness” of a genuine Christian life is far different from the “easiness” of nominal Christianity, a Christianity that requires nothing from its adherents.

Freedom or Servitude?

Walsh argues that the biggest obstacle to genuine Christianity in America is not persecution, but temptation to sin. There are countless versions of Christianity (and other faiths) to choose from, and you’re bound to be able to find one that will excuse whatever sin you happen to be drawn to.

But isn’t it good to have options? Isn’t freedom part of the point of being a Christian? Walsh nicely sums up the difference between genuine freedom and false freedom:

That’s the easy faith. The tempting one. The faith that preaches a Christ who died so that we may be freed to sin, rather than freed from sin. A difference of only one word, but the gap between them is as wide as the gap between Heaven and Hell.

It’s a good point, and important to keep in mind. But it’s also important to remember that living a Christian life should lead to a sense of genuine freedom and relief even in this lifetime. There are millions of Christians who will attest to way that their faith brought them out of harmful lifestyles or addiction. But that kind of freedom happens as a result of a willing submission to the Lord’s Word. Jesus said, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32). First we abide in His Word as disciples, then we know the truth, and only then are we made free.

Peace or a Sword?

That kind of freedom brings with it a great sense of peace. Jesus said to His disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (John 14:27). But again, this kind of peace only comes about after a willing submission to the Lord’s Word – and that takes an act of will, a battle between our new man and our old man. It’s a fight. Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Paul exhorted the Ephesians to take up the whole armor of God in battle against the powers of evil:

Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:14-17)

The Doctrine of the New Church puts this in terms of fighting against sin as if of ourselves while acknowledging that it the Lord Jesus Christ acting in us and through us. We need to know that it won’t feel like the Lord acting through us when we fight against the urge to tear someone else down. It’s only in retrospect that we realize that it was only by His grace that we were able to resist.

Even here, though, there can be a kind of peace within the conflict, a peace in knowing that we are acting in the Lord. A passage from Arcana Coelestia puts it this way:

A person who is being regenerated first experiences a state of serenity, but as he moves on into the new life so he moves into a state that is not serene. For evils and falsities which he has taken into himself previously now emerge and show themselves, and these trouble him, so much so at length that he undergoes temptations and trials from the devil’s crew who try all the time to destroy his state of new life. But despite this a state of peace exists with him inmostly. …In all the conflicts he experiences he sees that state as the end in view…, and this is what enables him to overcome. (Arcana Coelestia §3696)

“Fear Not” or “Fear and Trembling”?

In his final point, Walsh stresses the need for continuous repentance. He writes,

“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” St. Paul tells the Philippians. To which the modern Christian says, “Dude, chill.” I think we’re safer adopting St. Paul’s approach than that of the super chill psuedo-Christian. What reaction can we have but fear and trembling when we honestly confront the vileness of our sin? How many of us have even attempted such a confrontation?”

Genuine introspection can be a terrifying thing to do. I happen to be preaching on fear and courage next Sunday, and in the course of my research I came across this great passage from True Christian Religion, explaining why repentance was not widely practiced in the Protestant world:

The reason is that some are unwilling and some are afraid to repent, and lack of practice turns into a habit and leads to unwillingness, and eventually to acquiescence as the result of reasoning by the understanding. In some cases it leads to sorrow, fear and terror at the idea of repentance… [I spoke to some,] and they said that when they have it in mind to examine themselves, they are struck by fear and terror, as if they saw a monster beside their bed in the twilight.

It is genuinely frightening to start the work of self-examination and repentance. It’s hard to face the reality of what’s inside us. But it does get easier with practice. As with servitude that turns into freedom and the sword that turns into peace, this fear can be transformed into a kind of joy in repentance. Eventually, rebuke from God can be experienced as a blessing; the Lord says in Revelation 3:19, “Those whom I love I rebuke and chasten,” and the Psalmist writes, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes” (Psalm 119:71).

This doesn’t mean the fear of finding sin in ourselves ever goes away, but I it is transformed. It’s here that I might part ways with Walsh. Walsh writes, “I’m not really convinced that it’s possible to feel too guilty for your sin or too afraid of the eternal fire, but I’m sure those who cross that line, wherever it is, are in far better shape than those who never approach it.” I agree to a point – we should never lose the horror at the evil we’re capable of, and that does start as a fear of going to hell. But as a person grows spiritually, that fear becomes less one of “the eternal fire,” and more a fear of being hellish – a fear of letting down the Lord, a fear of doing anything that will hurt others. It becomes a fear that is actually love at its heart. From Arcana Coelestia:

As regards the holy fear which is signified in the Word by “the fear of God,” be it known that this fear is love, but love such as is the love of little children toward their parents, of parents toward their children, of consorts toward each other, who fear to do anything which displeases, thus which in any way does injury to love. (Arcana Coelestia §8925)

The Race of Faith

So is the Christian life difficult or easy? It’s both. The best way of reconciling this seeming contradiction is through the metaphor of the Christian life as a race. As the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews put it:

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us. (Hebrews 12:1)

It is hard to run a race. It takes training, dedication, and perseverance. But if you talk to any long distance runner, they’ll tell you that at some point while they’re running, they get a second wind. (As it happens, the word for “wind” in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin is the same as the word for both “breath” and “spirit.” Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.) Runners push themselves to the point of exhaustion – muscles burning, breath difficult, sweat pouring out. And then – something changes, and they find that their body is almost running itself. They are “being run.” They still have to work at it, their muscles and breath are still straining – but they find that in some sense it has become easy.

To couch potatoes, all that might seem pointless. Sure, maybe running gets easy at some point, but it’s even easier to sit around and watch TV. Those people miss the reality that the easiness of a second wind is deep, fulfilling, and life-giving – the opposite of the bored ennui of laziness. But unless those couch dwellers decide to start moving themselves, they’ll never really get the difference.

It’s the same with couch Christians vs. marathon Christians. Being a couch Christian – a Christian in name only, who maybe said the sinner’s prayer once and puts up Christmas lights – feels easy, but it’s not authentic. Being a marathon Christian takes work – but even in that work there is a joy. Even before reaching the destination there are second winds and experiences of ease – experiences of a genuine peace that surpasses anything a couch Christian can imagine.

One final point, lest I come across as holier-than-thou. I try to be a marathon Christian, but sometimes I slow down and get out of shape. And every time that happens (as anyone who has stopped exercising will tell you), it’s hard to get started again. It takes effort to do the challenging work of introspection and continuous repentance. But it’s worth it. There is joy and peace and ease not just at the finish line, but in the running of the race itself.

Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Image copyright: balefire9 / 123RF Stock Photo

February 10, 2017 by 0 Comments

Son of God — How to make sense of Christ’s claim?

Son of GodA basic teaching of Christianity is that there is only one God but in three distinct divine persons, the Father, the Son of God and the Holy Spirit: each said to be God. Many Christian theologians themselves admit they have found it impossible to come up with a persuasive and rational explanation for three Gods in one. So they call this a mystery.

Any lack of understanding in what the churches teach, I suppose, is not necessarily a problem for those of faith. Having said that, I suspect this central dogma is a major obstacle for many other people who won’t believe in something they don’t understand.

Son of God unprovable in historical terms

Virtually all scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus Christ existed. They have offered various historical portraits of his life, which at times share a number of overlapping attributes, such as a charismatic healer and religious prophet, who preached about the “kingdom of God” as a means for personal and social transformation. The question of his divinity is more difficult for historians and his claim to be what he called the Son of God.

Christ’s birth was not strictly a ‘virgin birth’ or parthenogenesis, for this would necessarily have produced a female offspring. Because he was male, he had to have had a father to give him his male sex chromosomes. He came to see himself as the Son of God. One snag from a scientific perspective is that if his father were really God, rather than a human being, how did he get his male sex chromosomes?

Son of God as body of the one God

Christians believe Christ’s assertion that his father was God and understand this to mean that he was a distinct person from his father in the same way as you and I are not the same person as either of our parents. However, an alternative Christian view originating from Emanuel Swedenborg is expressed by Brian Kingslake:

“Your soul is a finite vessel containing God’s life; and, because it is finite, you will always be finite. You will never merge with God. But Jesus was different. God was his Father, so his soul was God. It was not a vessel containing God, it was God himself. Therefore Jesus had no finite limitations.”

He goes on to claim that Christ’s spiritual growth went on and on without halting, until his humanity was dissolved into the divinity of God, making one divine person only. So according to this view of the Son of God, Jesus Christ had a divine soul that was within him throughout his life on earth.

However, his maternal heredity was like that of any other child. Mary gave him his natural tendencies. He began life in complete ignorance and had to learn everything. He could grow weary and could become angry and weep. Because of the self-orientated tendencies, he inherited from his mother, he was to be vulnerable to corrupting influences, as we all are.

Ordinary life in Palestine meant experiencing daily events like others of his age group. The boy would have learned how to become aware of things around him and of the way his family saw them. Like the rest of us, his thinking would have been restricted much of the time by how things appear and seem to be. In other words his experiences would have been shrouded by human consciousness. At the same time, the argument goes, if his soul were divine, there would have been many ‘break-through’ moments of a higher perception. John’s Gospel suggests these quite vividly. For example he wept over the self-defeating, self-centered attitudes around him.

“I believe there is no one lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic and more perfect than Jesus — not only is there no one else like him, but there could never be anyone like him.” (Feodor Dostoevsky)

Son of God having Christ’s dual nature

Swedenborg suggests that because of what he claims is Christ’s dual nature, at times there would be states of temptation say for material gain or egoist fame and thus Christ, even though he always resisted such urges, would have felt distinct and apart from God. So when feeling tempted by ordinary selfish urges  he would have been conscious of himself as the son of Mary: but even in his most exalted states,  free from baser tendencies, he was only conscious of being what he called the Son of God rather than God himself.

I would ask whether, compared with the traditional view of the Holy Trinity, it is more rational to think of the Holy Trinity as three dimensions of one Divine Person? I would suggest that just as we each have a soul, a mind and a bodily activity so does God: only in God’s case it is a soul of love, a mind of wisdom and a bodily activity that has powerful effects.

Swedenborg maintained that before Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, God did not exist in an ultimate form of flesh and bones and natural mind although there was a potential for this to develop. And this did develop through Christ’s overcoming and purifying his natural side inherited from Mary.

If this theory is correct, by the ‘Son of God’ we can understand the natural degree of mind and body which God took upon himself when he came into the world as the ‘Word made flesh’. And if true, there would have been no Son of God before the birth of Jesus and thus no separate divine person.

I myself feel it is probably misleading to describe Christ, after his ascension, as the Son of God. Instead I would say that Christ is the natural degree of the divine — i.e. God’s body rather than a distinct person of a Godhead; the Lord God we all can relate to person to person in what might be said to be a visible form. As the Bible says

“In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9)

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems