Some tenets of faith

We all change our beliefs over the course of our lives, but the beliefs we once held remain part of us in the sense that they are part of our story, and helped shape the people we have become. They are, therefore, worthy of an occasional blog post.

I was raised in a Christian family (liberal Protestant), and during the period corresponding roughly with my teens, held a strong Christian faith of my own. I was also interested in theology, especially in how the more challenging parts of the Bible could be harmonised with what I knew to be true on other grounds (be that intellectual or moral).

Listed below are ten beliefs I held, or conclusions I came to, on the subject of the afterlife: Heaven and Hell, etc. They are not presented as a comprehensive overview (for example, they don’t specifically mention Christ), but they do summarise a lot of my thinking on these matters.

I may write about other aspects of my former faith in the future, in which case the following points will serve as groundwork. I have occasionally written about religion in the past.

  1. That among the essential attributes of God is complete moral perfection, implying both unlimited compassion and infallable knowledge of what is morally right in any given situation.
  2. That God’s plan for reality is one in which everyone finds complete perfection and happiness in Heaven, a place entirely seperate from the universe we know.
  3. That if any morally fallible being were to enter Heaven, it wouldn’t be Heaven any more, because even a trace of evil would render the place imperfect. It follows that only morally perfect beings can be allowed to enter Heaven.
  4. That while all human beings are morally fallible, God is capable of transforming individuals into morally perfect beings. Being allowed into Heaven boils down to consenting to this spiritual operation. (See points 7 and 8 for some implied prerequisites).
  5. That said sinectomy leaves intact the person’s individual personality. How long the process takes is not revealed — one can speculate on something akin to a liberal version of the Catholic Purgatory, but such a thing would be more akin to a recovery ward than a prison, and pleasant in comparison to life on Earth.
  6. That because God’s plan involves everyone who exists being in Heaven, the only alternative to Heaven is the cessation of existence. There is no Hell in the sense of everlasting punishment, but there may well be a temporary state of torment pending the total destruction of the soul. Perhaps the torment of Hell consists of life’s comfortable illusions being stripped away  (c.f. “knurd” in the Discworld sense).
  7. That in order to grow towards its intended destiny, a soul must experience the yearning for moral perfection. The experience of this yearning is itself food for a growing soul. The fact that such yearning can only be experienced in an imperfect world might help to explain why we’re in one.
  8. That when the Bible says “seek and ye shall find“, it means that anyone who yearns for moral perfection — and is willing to accept divine assistance on God’s terms — has begun that spiritual journey and is on route to Heaven.
  9. That as implied by point 8 above, at the beginning of the spiritual journey it isn’t necessary to accept a particular religion. But because it is a journey (i.e. a process), it inevitably leads to an increasing awareness of God. The roadmap to be found in explicit knowledge of the Christian faith is not essential to salvation, but of enormous value nonetheless.
  10. That because the spiritual journey doesn’t end at death, there are no grounds for assuming that death is the “deadline” for deciding one’s spiritual destiny. (In fact, given that people obviously do not receive the same spiritual opportunities in life, it plainly cannot be, at least not always.)

I ask that comments remain pertinent to the specific beliefs I’ve mentioned, as I don’t wish to host a general discussion about religious faith. Also discouraged are comments that attempt to argue that any particular viewpoint is correct. Thoughtful and pertinent reflection is welcome, however.

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4 Responses to “Some tenets of faith”

  1. John Cowan Says:

    Just a clarification: Purgatory is not a prison, though it’s more like a rehab facility than a recovery ward, if by “recovery” you mean “surgical recovery”. The people in Purgatory are all saved, which means their specific sins are forgiven — the unrepentant are in Hell by definition, but repentance at the moment of death does count. What the souls in Purgatory are doing there is attempting to correct their various sinful tendencies, or character defects. (Those who don’t have any such are the saints, who alone ascend straight to Heaven.)

    People suffer in Purgatory as in rehab, but not because anyone or anything is punishing them except their own past mistakes: the pains are, literally, purgative and redemptive, not penal. Traditionally, when the person recognizes that the process is complete, they leave Purgatory of their own volition.

    Other than #6, there is nothing in your list incompatible with Catholicism as far as I can see, and even #6 is based to some extent on a misunderstanding. Heaven and Hell are called eternal states (as opposed to this world and Purgatory, which are temporal) not because they are endlessly prolonged in time, but because they are atemporal, lacking any metric of time passing at all. Nobody gets out of Hell because, literally, there no events in Hell. Nothing happens there at all, presumably not even the continuity of human consciousness.

    Some say, indeed, that the true punishment of Hell is the deprivation of God in all his forms: love, good things, other people. The soul that insists on turning away from God gets, in some sense, what it wanted. What happens to Hell after the General Judgment (as opposed to the “particular judgment” passed on every individual at the moment of death), which is also an atemporal event — Purgatory will be empty and this world will no longer exist — is not well-defined.

  2. John Cowan Says:

    Here’s a comment by George Bernard Shaw on the conventional understanding of Heaven and Hell:

    After all, what man is capable of the insane self-conceit of believing that an eternity of himself would be tolerable even to himself? Those who try to believe it postulate that they shall be made perfect first. But if you make me perfect I shall no longer be myself, nor will it be possible for me to conceive my present imperfections (and what I cannot conceive I cannot remember); so that you may just as well give me a new name and face the fact that I am a new person and that the old Bernard Shaw is as dead as mutton. Thus, oddly enough, the conventional belief in the matter comes to this: that if you wish to live for ever you must be wicked enough to be irretrievably damned, since the saved are no longer what they were, and in hell alone do people retain their sinful nature: that is to say, their individuality.

    It’s from his book Parents and Children, chapter 1.

  3. Flesh-eating Dragon Says:

    Any list of Protestant beliefs that doesn’t mention Mary, the Pope, or Holy Communion is likely to be compatible with Catholicism. As for Purgatory, I’ve observed that individual Catholics vary considerably as to the specifics, which is why I wrote “a liberal version of”. It seems to me that on this subject, at least, there is a possibility of a middle ground, acceptable as speculation if not as doctrine to many Protestants and Catholics alike. A characteristic belief of liberal Christianity is that there are many things God has chosen not to reveal.

    I remember a conversation within the young peoples’ discussion group in a Protestant church speculating (with reference to the “third heaven” of 2 Corinthians 12:2) that perhaps true Heaven is so mind-blowing that one has to work up to it gradually, via a number of intermediate steps (I suppose the gradual ascent of a deep-sea diver is an apt analogy). I remember thinking at the time that this sounded vaguely like Purgatory.

    As for Shaw, sinful natures, and individuality, it has always been a Christian doctrine that people in Heaven retain individual personalities; that is the underlying point of the “Resurrection of the Body”. However, it’s also true that a great deal of what we think of as our personality (e.g. how we habitually respond to conflict) would be meaningless in a perfect world.

  4. Carmen Says:

    I think Eastern religions and New Agers believe that through reincarnation we are brought back to earth again and again to learn from our mistakes and come closer to perfection, until we are so perfect we become one with God (the light, unity etc) and completely lose our individuality. One sign of spiritual attainment is that you lose all sense of self. Maybe Shaw knew about this belief?


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