In this part of the correspondence, we address questions related to loving God, the divinity of Jesus, moral excellence and accountability, and adultery.
What does it mean to love God? Why is that important for my happiness?
The most general definition of what it means to love God is to have a single-hearted, pure devotion toward God as a person and an appreciation of his objectively true worth. So it is an objective appreciation and recognition that God is the most love-worthy being in existence, and that it would not only be foolish but morally reprehensible not to acknowledge his supreme goodness, incomparable beauty, boundless wisdom, and so on. Subjectively, it is to encourage and to cultivate feelings of pure devotion to God as a person.
There are a number of reasons why this might be important for your happiness. If you are in fact an eternal being, he will be extremely relevant for the vast majority of your existence. Concerning your present life, there are a number of arguments that could be made, but the simplest would be to say that the Bible claims that you are created for a relationship with God. You may be able to find other sorts of substitutes to partially fulfill that dynamic which would maximize your total happiness, but it won’t actually fully succeed. There is an essay by C.S. Lewis called “First and Second Things” in which he does a pretty good job of explaining not only why you need God to fill what Blaise Pascal called the “God-shaped hole,” but why you need the God-shaped hole to be filled in order to embrace and to appreciate everything else fully.
However, I think it’s mostly important to point out that the reason to accept God and to love him really has very little to do with your happiness. The effect of loving God should be that you will be more maximally happy, but that happiness is not the justification for why you should love God.
I believe Jesus to be a legend based on a historical teacher. I have difficulty believing his declarations of divinity and the resurrection. I think the authors added those to his message. On a personal level, in this life, why is it so important that I recognize him as God?
St. Athanasius from the fourth century said “that which is not assumed is not redeemed.” He said that in relationship to Christ’s human nature. The point in relationship to Christ’s sacrifice for our sins is that he redeemed our full humanity by becoming fully human. If he had not become fully human, humans could not be fully redeemed. The reason he could redeem all of humanity in a single sacrifice is that he was and is himself also fully God. So if you understand the biblical message that Christ is a sacrifice for our sins so that God can count us just while maintaining his own justice – solving our cosmic problem of rebellion against God’s divine kingship in rejecting his loving fatherly relationship and in destroying his creative intention for creation – then Christ’s divinity is absolutely necessary.
There are a bunch of other reasons also, but that is the one I will offer for now. Concerning what you said before about how you’ve come to the general position you hold, I would say that that position is generally unfounded. If you simply have a hard time believing that Jesus is divine and that he was resurrected from the dead, I can understand general skepticism in relationship to that astounding claim. But when you get down to the specifics of whether or not Jesus’s teaching is mainly legendary, or that the Gospels don’t seem to be eyewitness accounts, or that there seem to be major additions to his message, and so on, I would say that that is not built on a very good historical basis. It might be helpful for us to have a conversation about that.
I am very concerned with moral excellence, but no one ever tells me I am doing wrong, even though I can see that I am completely off the mark. There’s a benefit in developing one’s own conscience, so do I need accountability? And how do I find it?
One of the first questions that has to be asked is why don’t people tell you that you are falling short? There are two main reasons. The first is relativism: they don’t know that you and they agree upon what is morally perfect/excellent. The second is they don’t believe it’s their role to call you out on it, so they lack the courage to do it. Before you need accountability, you need a basis for that accountability. What really accounts for moral excellence? Is it pluralism, your ability to accept others no matter what they do? Is it adherence to a moral code like what Daoists called the Tao/Te, a universal set of beliefs of moral purity and virtue? Until you can determine a clear basis for what moral excellence must be, it’s hard to ask for any kind of specific accountability. And then beyond that, you have to believe that holding other people accountable and being subject to their accountability is part of moral excellence. Almost no one believes that because of our cultural doctrine of tolerance. Even if that doctrine isn’t the philosophical enemy of accountability, it is definitely the practical enemy of accountability.
You have to determine the road of truth before you can come to the bridge of practice.
Sometimes I meet Christians I find morally repulsive. I feel betrayed because I thought we were undertaking the same journey, and now I know where they really want to be. A tricky generic question, but how do I tackle this?
You just don’t make them your spiritual companions. Anyone can self-identify as Christian, but Christianity an objective thing to which we either conform or don’t. Christianity is not something that we define for ourselves and therefore label ourselves. When most people label themselves as Christian, they mean something like, “I’m from a Christian family,” “I grew up in a vaguely Christian household that never went to church,” “I believe that Jesus is my special friend and is there to make me happy” (the therapeutic heresy), or “I believe Jesus loves people that are good” (the religious or moralistic heresy). Once you realize what Christianity isn’t by understanding the gospel with some clarity, you will easily be able to smell out the real deal. Then you will be able to accumulate true spiritual companions who are seeking to follow Christ as he intended them to do. Some of those people will still disappoint you, but in a different sort of way.
I’m looking to understand adultery better. In the age of contraception and the Clinton sex scandal, I have no doubt it’s not just about extramarital sex (or perhaps I need that redefined). I have a sense it has something to do with putting a person above God. What is adultery? How do I recognize it? Why is this even important?
Adultery is extramarital sex with anyone you aren’t married to (if you are married). It’s easy to recognize: if you’re having sex with someone who isn’t your wife and you are married, then you are committing adultery. What is more necessary is to understand human nature and the mechanisms of long-term human emotional and sexual bonding. To avoid adultery, you have to avoid it by avoiding something else: emotionally and romantically bonding with someone with whom you shouldn’t. Remember, normal humans will bond with people they definitely shouldn’t bond with to create psychologically unhealthy bonds through normal and healthy psychological mechanisms. The Stockholm syndrome is an example of this. Healthy mechanisms of empathy and time together can even cause normal human beings to fall in love with their captors in hostage situations.
Adultery is important because families and marriages are important to God. The marriage ceremony refers to marriage as something God created for the “welfare and happiness of all mankind.” If that is the true purpose of marriage, and if adultery interrupts and destroys this bond (which it does), then one major argument to be made is that it is important because it destroys something important. This actually leads into a fairly complicated psychological discussion about bonding and how it affects the human brain and behavior parameters, but I’ll just leave it there for now.
My “mission statement”: My purpose in life is to find and maintain true happiness. I take aim at this by pursuing excellence, and this I do by uncovering and practicing virtues. Virtues are universal and everyone can discover them. To know them requires contemplation. To practice them requires mindfulness.
My death is the end of ontological “me”; I cease to exist as who I am. My purpose has been fulfilled. If something remains, it is of another being.
This means you believe in a mixture of Brahman Advaita Hinduism, with a sprinkle of North Indian Buddhism, wrapped up in a form of Stoic Hedonism. That is certainly a coherent religious philosophy, I just think it’s important that I point out that it doesn’t have very much to do with Christianity. Christianity would claim that true happiness is a result, not a proper object. Virtues are often not well discovered by people in the sinful condition (thus requiring divine revelation), and true mindfulness isn’t possible without external revelation and repentance (since it is impossible to get behind or outside of the sinful condition or to have a mindfulness experience that isn’t a nervous system event). Christianity claims that death is not the ontological end of you, and that your purpose has only begun to be fulfilled, and that your being is not ontologically of another being, though it is relationally for another being and metaphysically from another being.
You have a very modern, coherent and interesting religious and philosophical view of the world. I think at this point, it is just important to point out that you aren’t a Christian. I’d love to talk with you about these things.
I met a girl once, and I found much happiness in things like waking up next to her. I can’t fathom in the least how this damages me. I can see someone in my future being upset, although I can’t say I would be. Instead, I regret more the end of our relationship. I “never gave it a chance” by sticking to traditional Christian views on adultery I never truly believed, and which I feel change with the time and place. So, instead of having regret for any possible adultery, I regret not enjoying that present and extending my relationship out to a different conclusion; even if it was just parting ways later.
What most people mean by extramarital sex not hurting them is that they don’t believe that it hurts them more than it helps them. Almost everybody experiences some relational pain or can see some collateral damage that is produced by non-marital sexual relationships. There’s a list of between 7 and 10 ways in which we and others are hurt by these things that I usually share with audiences when I speak on the subject. Ultimately, our philosophy of sexuality and relational unions is dependent on our view of human nature. Because you don’t have a Christian view of human nature, it doesn’t seem surprising to me that you don’t share a Christian view of how human beings should behave. This is actually a decently complicated set of concepts that I can’t fully explain here. I could try over lunch sometime.