Toward a Rationalist Theology
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Whenever someone comes to me and says that they have a message for me from God, the first question that enters my mind asks, "Why is God sending a flunky to give me a message instead of coming to me directly?" If people had been more insistent on asking that question over the last two millenia, I believe that Humanity would have been spared a tremendous amount of misery. Throughout recent history people who claim to speak for God have, more often than not, been up to no good and they get away with their scams because most of us have been taught that God is an inscrutable being who works in mysterious ways. But what do we get if that latter assertion does not stand true to Reality? Weíre going to find out, because I believe that it does not.
Since 1980 I have been working on a project that I call the Map of Physics. It consists of a series of essays that show, successfully so far, how someone can deduce all of the laws of mathematical physics from, ultimately, the basic observation that we exist. If the laws of physics and the Reality that they govern do, indeed, conform to that rationalist pattern, then we may infer that whatever created that Reality is a rational being, one that we can understand.
If God is, in fact, a supremely rational being, then what should our belief look like? How would Christianity have to change to accommodate a purely rational God?
Letís begin our exploration of those questions with the fact that Christianity is founded on an error. In his letters to proto-Christian communities throughout Asia Minor the Apostle Paul (effectively, though not actually, the first pope) laid the foundation of Christianity. In laying that foundation he made its center and main support the idea that Christ died for our sins. In Pauline Christianity the Crucifixion made Jesus the scapegoat for all of Humanityís sins, including especially the Original Sin of Adam and Eve.
That doctrine of sin and salvation reflects Paulís desire to sell the new religion throughout the Roman Empire. To fulfill that desire Paul had to compete with the mystery religions, such as the Cult of Mithra, that were popular at the time. Those pagan religions typically offered the remission of sins, often through disgusting rituals; for example, the Cult of Mithra cleansed the sinner by obliging him to bathe in the blood of a sacrificial bull. Paul made his version of the ritual more palatable, and thus made his religion more attractive, by having his converts bathe in water in the rite of baptism.
Though the doctrine of salvation may have brought more converts to Christianity, it was nonetheless illegitimate. To see how Paul went wrong we need only examine the Gospels. Before we do that we need to remind ourselves that the Jewish liturgical calendar contains two major holy days Ė Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and Pesach (Passover).
If, indeed, Jesusí mission obliged him to take onto himself the guilt of all of our sins, then he would have been crucified on or about Yom Kippur, in the autumn. On the Day of Atonement the high priest in the Temple of God in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) laid his hands upon a goat (the scapegoat) and transferred to it the guilt for the sins of the Jewish people. Then the goat was taken to a cliff outside the city and pushed over to prevent its return.
But Jesus was crucified the day after Passover, in the spring, and further, according to the story, he came back. The scapegoat isnít supposed to come back. So what was Jesusí actual mission? Well, what is the main event of the original Passover? Why is the holiday called Passover?
In the prelude to the Exodus the Angel of Death swept over Egypt and took the first-born children and the first-born of the farm animals from every house, except those houses that had fresh lambís blood painted on the doorposts and lintels. The angel passed over the houses of the Hebrews. If we conceive Jesus as analogous to the Paschal lamb and consider the story of his resurrection along with his resurrection of Lazarus, then we must infer that his mission consisted simply of assuring us that we need not fear death. Yes, these material bodies of ours do actually die, but our souls, the seats of our personalities and our consciousness, persist in an aetherial realm that we identify as the afterlife.
That analysis makes good sense, but does it make good theology? If correcting Paulís error were that simple, then why does it persist as part of Christian doctrine to this day, nearly two thousand years after Paul made it?
The answer to that latter question lies in the Doctrine of Original Sin. Certainly in disobeying Godís order that they not eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil Adam and Eve committed a misdemeanor. Most theologians regard that disobedience as the Original Sin. Certainly it reflects a deficiency in Adam and Eveís ability to conform their behavior to the will of God and, thus, it might be conceived as a sin (it is certainly a criticism of Godís engineering abilities, which is blasphemy). But I believe that it was the eating of the fruit and the acquisition of the knowledge of good and evil that constituted the Original Sin. Gaining the knowledge of good and evil brought upon Adam and Eve a weltschmerz reflecting the difference between the world of their desires and the world as it actually is. That diminution of their happiness would feel like a self-inflicted deficiency and a sense of guilt would come with it.
We all inherit that deficiency and its associated guilt at birth, according to Paul, and we do feel the weltschmerz, at least unconsciously. Thus, Paul tells us, we need salvation and that can only come to us through the drama of the Crucifixion. Unfortunately, that doctrine makes Christianity sound like a cosmic protection racket, in which God contrives, through malice or incompetence, to foist upon us all a guilt that can only be absolved through His son, for a price of course. We need to do better than that.
So we return to our original question: What would Christianity look like if theologians had assumed a perfectly rational God? Let me note here that I define evil as any act that diminishes a person and that I define sin as an evil that one commits against oneself, a falling short of attaining some ideal.
In the beginning God created space and time and created matter to fill space and become an evolving Universe as time elapsed. With the elapse of time matter evolved into ever more complex forms, starting with stars and galaxies and then continuing with planets spun out of clouds of dusty gas. As soon as Earth cooled enough for liquid water to puddle on its surface the basic components of life began to accumulate and soon thereafter life came into being. Over a span of slightly more than four eons the simplest life evolved into a vastly complex array of plants and animals, including a species of sentient beings.
Instinct guides most animals, shaping their behavior in stereotypical ways in response to certain stimuli. But humans possess the faculties of imagination and intelligence, which free us from the constraints of instinct and enable us to conceive behaviors beyond the stereotypes of ape behavior. We humans can conceive the idea of a perfect world and compare that image with the world in which we actually exist, thereby bringing upon ourselves a feeling of distress at the difference, the weltschmerz. We are the only animals that can do that.
We thus have something very much like the Original Sin, the acquisition of the knowledge of good and evil. On the savannahs of Ancient Africa our remote ancestors came to feel that something had gone wrong with their world. Unlike animals, which spend their lives in an endless now, humans, through memory and foresight, occupy a longer span of time. Within that span we conceive ourselves as existing among acts of good and acts of evil. In that array the acts of evil vex us mightily.
Itís not that we misunderstand evil or that some evil acts might be blessings in disguise. We all understand the fundamental nature of evil, if only in our deep unconscious minds. The reasoning is easy to follow. If I present the statement, "Evil consists of any act that in some way diminishes me", I will find few, if any, people who will disagree with it. Of course nobody wants to be made less than they are. We all understand that fact, so we automatically extend the statement to "Evil consists of any act that in some way diminishes any person." To avoid doing evil (or at least relative evil), then, we need only apply a simple rule Ė do not treat others worse than they treat you: thatís a variant form of what we call the Golden Rule.
But evil does exist and itís not just the few degenerate humans who do bad things. The world itself can seem evil at times; animals attack us, the weather makes us miserable, disease strikes us down. We know these things, so we possess the knowledge of good and evil.
Unconsciously we believe that we must have done something wrong, that we are to blame for bringing evil into the world. We have somehow made ourselves less than we ought to be: thatís the real Original Sin. So how do we cope with it? What do we do about it?
We can absolve ourselves of the guilt associated with the Original Sin (however undeserved it may be) by acting to remove evil from the world, by striving to undo what we feel we have done. We can devise ways to fend off dangerous animals; we can build shelters that will protect us from inclement weather; we can work to eradicate disease; and we can strive to suppress the evil that others create. By working to make our world better than it was when we came into it we bestow upon ourselves a measure of grace: itís not Divine Grace, certainly, but it is a blessing upon us nonetheless.
There is one evil whose distress we cannot assuage Ė death, the ultimate diminution of a person. This is what really makes the Original Sin hurt. We humans are the only animal that can contemplate and understand its own mortality. We can foresee our own cessation and that foresight lurks in our unconscious minds, in part driving us to make sense of this world.
What does this have to do with a rational God? Certainly God watches our struggles against evil, but in doing so It faces a dilemma. We call it theodicy, the problem of evil: why does an all-good and all-powerful God allow evil to exist?
The answer to that question begins with the observation that God does not understand evil. God cannot know evil in the way It knows, letís say, the mass of the proton. Nobody disputes the mass of the proton but, although the definition given above may convince most people, some people dispute the nature of evil. The criminal does not believe that heís doing evil when he diminishes others in order to aggrandize himself. Some people can even commit mass murder and believe that they are doing good: think of Hitlerís Nazis and their appeal to a deformed version of Darwinís theory of evolution. How can God cope with such disagreements if It cannot devise an unassailable definition of evil?
It creates an afterlife. These material bodies that we inhabit age, die, and turn to dust, but the spirits that inhabit them continue to exist in some alternate form, presumably in an alternate realm. That realm is not the generic Heaven or the generic Hell that we see depicted in cartoons (God would have to understand evil in order to assign people to one or the other). Our rational, all-powerful God creates for each person a custom-built afterlife, a world designed in accordance with that personís definition of good. Thatís a perfect solution of the problem of evil. It relieves God of the necessity to define evil and, at the same time, it relieves us of the existential horror of death. We need only pay attention to the criterion God uses in creating our afterlives, summing it up in the statement that the Golden Rule is a law of physics.
Now we come to the central question of theology:
Does God exist?
And even more importantly:
In what form does God exist?
The existence of God is not such a difficult question to answer. We identify God with whatever created Reality and brought the Universe into existence. But that creator could be anything, from the sentient grandfather figure of the Bible to an aetherial abstraction of the laws of physics. Thus we must confront the second question.
The Bible offers a tip on how to discern the fundamental nature of God. In Matthew 7:16 and 20 Jesus tells his disciples, "You will know them by their fruits." Godís primary fruits are Reality and the Universe, so what can those two entities tell us about their Creator? To the extent that the Map of Physics gives us an accurate description of the relationships among the laws of physics, to that same extent God must be a rational being. But that proposition doesnít tell us what we really want to know about God. After all, an electronic computer is a rational being, but it is not sentient or conscious. So how can we learn more about the nature of God?
Cosmologists tell a joke that consists of two statements: 1) God is the boundary condition of the Universe and 2) the Universe has no boundary. The joke plays on the fact that when an engineer or a physicist wants to describe a dynamic system, such as a klystron containing an electromagnetic field, they solve a differential equation. They take the general characteristics of the system and enter them into the equation as coefficients, solve the equation to obtain a general solution for that kind of system, and then they transform the general solution into a specific solution by conforming the solution to the systemís boundary conditions, the values that the solution must take on the systemís boundaries. If we take that process as our metaphor, then rationality gives us the general solution of the "equation of God" and we must determine the boundary conditions on God in order to find the specific solution. Thatís a very rationalist metaphor, but we have no guarantee that it provides a proper pattern for discovering the true nature of God.
Nonetheless, we can ask what are the boundary conditions of God. Does God, like the Universe, have no boundary? And, if so, does God still have something like boundary conditions? Or ask the question in reverse: What boundary conditions would have to apply to God in order for Its rationality to be modulated by sentience and consciousness?
Those remain open questions (as of 2014 July 18). For now, as to Godís sentience and consciousness, as to whether God pays attention to Reality, those things we must still take on faith. But we also take on faith the proposition that we will eventually find answers to our questions. When we find those answers we will have a complete rationalist theology. And we will have solved the mysteries of Existence and its Author.
Appendix: The Steps to Sentience
In order to have any kind of theological drama in this Universe we must have sentient beings to participate in it. In traditional Christianity those sentient beings came from an act of special creation. In rationalist Christianity we donít want to see any suspensions of the laws of Nature. So we ask whether sentience can evolve without the intervention of miracles. The following are the non-miraculous steps that evolution must take to create a sentient being:
1. Life itself: living things are made of matter, so life is fundamentally an act of chemistry. We know that chemistry works best when the chemicals are suspended in a medium, usually a liquid, that enables them to move and interact with each other freely. Thus we infer that life on Earth originated, in its simplest form, in the aqueous solution that we identify as lakes, rivers, and oceans.
Activated by ultraviolet light, lightning or other energy sources, simple reactions transformed molecules in Earthís primordial atmosphere into amino acids and other molecules that came together into more complex structures. Eventually some molecules came together into a structure that reproduced itself and life began.
2. Multicellular life: single-celled organisms cannot develop sentience, the ability to obtain abstract information and transform it into new abstract information. We need an organism that exists as an agglomeration of many cells of different kinds. Among those kinds we must have cells that can move stimuli from one part of the organismís body to another; that is, the organism must have a nervous system. The form and function of a cell reflect its internal chemistry and it doesnít take much of a change in that chemistry to evolve a bacterium into a cell that can transmit electrochemical pulses along its length. But a nerve cell canít live on its own, so it must be surrounded by cells of other types that will support and nourish it.
It began with a number of cells of the same species sticking together, as in Volvox. Mutations would change one or another of those cells into something else and if that something else contributed to the survival of the agglomeration, it became a permanent part of the evolving creature. In that way what began as a simple association of single-celled creatures evolved into complex organisms.
3. Bony fish: a creature organized around a solid keel, a backbone, can thrust itself through the water, rather than merely slithering through the water as boneless creatures do. By anchoring themselves to bone the fishís muscles gain leverage to exert forces that, without the bone, they would exert weakly, if at all. Because bone is basically mineralized cartilage, fish likely originated as cartilaginous creatures, like sharks, and evolved the mineralization later.
Bones make the fish more rigid than a boneless version would be, making it clumsier in its gross motions. So the evolution of bones also promoted the evolution of maneuvering fins, fore and aft, to enable the fish to fine-tune its motions. The fins consist of thin fans projecting from muscular nubs and they appear to have evolved through mutations of the process that creates the fishís gill arches.
Bones also make the fish denser, less buoyant, so the evolution of bones also promoted the evolution of the swim bladder. At some time a mutation, essentially a birth defect, gave a fish a pocket extending off the gut, a structure similar to a pyloric caecum displaced to a position above the stomach. Filled with gas, that pocket increased the fishís buoyancy. The ability to maintain its depth and to hover around reefs with little effort gave the fish an advantage that promoted the mutations that created the pocket and made it larger in subsequent generations. Thus, through the interplay of mutation and natural selection the pocket evolved into the swim bladder that we see in bony fish today.
4. Life on land: in the late Devonian period (ca. 375 million years ago) in the coastal swamps and marshes of Euramerica and Gondwana, certain fish had evolved fleshy lobes that extended their pectoral and pelvic fins away from their bodies. Those lobes originated in mutations that made the muscles controlling the fins protrude from the fishís body. With those protrusions the fish could push against roots, branches, and other plant debris that filled the swampy water, thereby gaining the kind of advantage that causes natural selection to promote the mutations that enlarge the advantage. Eventually certain fish could maneuver in water so shallow that their bodies came part way out of it. Those fish could come completely out of the water, squirming along like the walking catfish of Southeast Asia and, eventually, waddling like seals, to take advantage of opportunities on land. Those fish evolved into the amphibians and some of those evolved into creatures that didnít even have to return to the water to reproduce, the reptiles.
5. Endothermy: in the interior deserts of Pangaea sometime in the Triassic period, certain predatory reptiles got a head start on their day (and on their prey) by shivering when dawn first started filling the land with light. The twitching of the muscles generated heat that warmed the creature enough that they could go out and hunt while other creatures were still sluggish from the nightís cold: those predators didnít need to wait for the sunís rays to warm them up. That practice gave the creatures an evolutionary advantage that made natural selection promote any mutation that added to the heating of the creaturesí bodies; in particular, it led to the creaturesís cells containing more mitochondria doing nothing but generating heat. The creatures became warm-blooded.
This fact necessitates the evolution of some kind of thermal insulation to prevent the creature from losing heat too rapidly. Some creatures evolved feathers and became the therapod dinosaurs, some of which became the birds. Other creatures evolved hair and became the mammals.
6. Life in the trees: when certain living things gain nourishment from absorbing sunlight it is inevitable that some of them will evolve into forms that stand tall and lift their leaves to the sun. Thick stands of such things will darken the land beneath them and some animals will find food, safety, and shelter in their heights. Among the first mammals to try out the arboreal lifestyle we would have found something vaguely resembling a modern squirrel, a small creature that used its sharp claws to dig into a treeís bark to support itself and its long tail to balance itself. That lifestyle promoted mutations that shortened the creatureís snout (diminishing its sense of smell and promoting the evolution of a compensating enlargement of its sense of vision) and reshaped its skull to give the creature a predatorís forward-facing stare with its exquisite depth perception. The phalanges on the creatureís paws lengthened and the paws became grasping hands and feet with flat nails in place of claws. The tail lengthened and became more prehensile and the creatures evolved an upright posture that let them stand and walk on branches while leaving the hands free to grasp branches and vines. The squirrel-like creatures evolved into the monkeys. Some of those grew larger and lost their tails as they came down out of the trees to spend more time on the ground: they became the apes.
7. Life on the savannah: six to seven million years ago Earth entered a time in which the normal climate was punctuated by ice ages. Continental drift pushing India into South Asia raised the Himalay and led to carbon dioxide being drawn out of the atmosphere as rain eroded the rocks. Earth became cooler on average and certain areas, such as East Africa, deprived of rain, dried out.
As the forests slowly thinned out and were gradually replaced by open grassland the chimpanzees who lived in those areas adapted to the new conditions. A changing cast of predators and prey and of other environmental conditions promoted mutations that made the chimpanzees stand straighter and taller on their hind legs, giving those chimpanzees the ability to walk upright more easily, to use less energy to cross a given distance. As the chimpanzees evolved into australopithecines they also evolved into long-distance runners.
8. Life among the scavengers: as the long-distance runners evolved physiques essentially identical to ours genus Australopithecus faded into genus Homo. Using stone tools and fire, Homo erectus continued the australopithecinesí practice of improving their diet by obtaining meat and marrow from the carcasses of animals killed by the big predators. But other, more dangerous scavengers, such as hyenas, took precedence and left very little for the hominids.
Then one hominid discovered that throwing rocks at the other scavengers would repel them from the carcass and, thus, that their own tribe could obtain more meat. That correlation between throwing things and obtaining better nutrition promoted any mutations that would improve the hominidsí throwing abilities; in particular, it promoted mutations that made throwing more accurate by giving the hominids bigger and more complex brains. Those bigger brains gave the hominids, now humans, more than improved timing in the movement of muscles: they bestowed upon the humans language, imagination, consciousness, and conscience. And that change gave early humans and their descendants the knowledge of good and evil.
Thus we see that the interplay of mutation and natural selection, the engine of evolution, is sufficient to transform the most primitive lifeforms into sentient beings without any supernatural interventions being required. No miracles were involved in the evolution of Homo sapiens. That fact necessitates that any proper moral theology be founded on something other than the creation story in Genesis.
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