On Why We Need God, Part 1: The Moral Core of My Faith

I want to thank all of you who have and who are still commenting on the two prior posts about religionless Christianity. Your openness and intellectual depth--Theist and atheist alike!--are amazing. I'm honored that you take the time to visit here.

(PS-As I mentioned in my Dietrich Bonhoeffer post I could not find the important parts from his letters on religionless Christianity on the Internet. So, I typed them up so that people could find them, copy them, and forward them to others. Please copy the interesting parts of those letters onto your blogs and start discussions there. That is why I typed them up.)

Given some of the comments to my last post, and as I like to push one way and then another in this blog, I thought I'd take this week, across three posts, to explain why I think we need God (and even church).

To start, note that I'm going to argue why I think we need God. Not why I believe in God, but why I think I need God. Which is a different focus then what we are used to. That is, the issue will be pragmatic, not metaphysical. What I hope to argue is that even if God doesn't exist I think the idea of God is still helpful. Which is to say that I'll be arguing that the idea of God is even of use to an atheist.

To start, I want to say this: There are lots of reasons for acknowledging how believing in God leads to bad outcomes. Please read Sam Harris' book The End of Faith for a good analysis. So, I don't begin by saying believing in God is an unmitigated or noncontroversial good. My goal is more modest. I want to simply argue that there is a good facet to believing in God, perhaps even a morally necessary facet. I hope to convince you of that this week. Quite a job, huh? (Oh, and I fully expect to fail in this.)

Let us begin.

If you read this blog you know that I define my faith morally rather than metaphysically. So, as this analysis will be partly autobiographical, we need to start there, with my moral focus. More specifically, I define my faith by three overlapping moral foci:

The Kenosis Focus: The mastering of ego and pride and selfishness.
Key Virtues: Humility, eschewing hierarchy/status, submission, egolessness, servanthood.
Key Jesus Teaching: To enter the Kingdom of God you must become like little children (i.e., a powerless and marginal one).
Key Jesus Example: Washing the disciples feet.

The Ahimsa Focus: Primum non nocere ("First, do no harm.")
Key Virtues: Non-violence, pacifism, peace, forgiveness, reconciliation.
Key Jesus Teaching: Turn the other cheek. Do not repay evil for evil, but pray for your enemies.
Key Jesus Example: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

The Solidarity/Embrace Focus: Solidarity with victims (from Girard and Moltmann) and embrace of the other (from Volf)
Key Virtues: Radical hospitality, aid, protection, justice, care.
Key Jesus Teaching: The parable of the Good Samaritan and the Sheep and the Goats.
Key Jesus Example: Welcoming the unclean and sinner to table fellowship.

Okay, so what I call faith/religion/Christianity is this focus: Kenosis, ahimsa, and solidarity/embrace. I'll shorten this to KASE.

Now, as I've explored various religious, metaphysical and philosophical perspectives to support KASE in my life I've found three which, in my opinion, do a good job of aiding the development of KASE in me. These three perspectives are:

Liberal Humanism

I've looked hard and studied hard (and still study hard) in all three of these areas. And the mutual study of all three has been very helpful to me. I highly recommend this tripartite study. The best in buddhism, liberal humanism, and Christianity overlap in very helpful and reinforcing ways. I see lots of overlap between Jesus and the Buddha and feel that, in many ways, they are the great thinkers behind liberal humanism.

But at the end of the day, I've found that Christianity, for purely pragmatic reasons, has done the best job of fostering KASE in me. Thus, at the end of the day, this is why I'm a Christian.

Why does Christianity do such a great job of fostering KASE in me? I'll get to that in my next post.

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9 thoughts on “On Why We Need God, Part 1: The Moral Core of My Faith”

  1. For the purpose of efficiency this may sound impersonal, but I'd like to avoid a lengthy response by just addressing "KASE".

    I've come to understand your focuses to be the result of our survival instinct as a species. No matter what unavoidable hierarchies appear, we've needed to help each other to survive. We haven't always lived up to our potential for love and protection, but we're still learning.

    God, however, is said to have more than potential. He is said to have capabilities of love and protection far greater than our own. Yet our history informs us that God hasn't lived up to these capabilities.

  2. Hi Jerry,
    I agree that kin selection and reciprocity set up our basic moral hardware. But our evolved moral equipment, as important as it is, still has a lot of darkness in it. More specifically, due to the kinship bias, our moral sense is very tribal and in-group focused. Our reciprocity instinct is prone to reciprocal violence. In short, our evolved moral equipment has the seeds of violence sown into it. So, when I describe KASE I'm speaking of something that has wholly eradicated those tendencies from our moral lives. Thus, if an attempt is made to reduce KASE to our innate moral psychology I, personally, would reject that as my moral goal. I'm demanding more from myself. Of course, people can make different choices. My analysis here is largely biographical.

    And regarding God, note again I'm not trying to defend his existence or even his goodness. My more modest goal is to suggest that a notion of God is useful in fostering the KASE that transcends our innate moral equipment. (And again, I have doubts if I'll be able to be wholly convincing. But it's worth a shot if only to foster conversation.)

  3. Richard,

    Two urls might be of interest given this post.

    1) http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n20/fodo01_.html



    George C.

  4. Hi Steve,
    Thanks for that. My studies in Islam have been shallow and it's good to note areas of mutual convergence.

    Hi George,
    Appreciate the links. The book on the origins and development of divine law looks very interesting.

  5. "What I hope to argue is that even if God doesn't exist I think the idea of God is still helpful ... If you read this blog you know that I define my faith morally rather than metaphysically"

    Well if nobody ELSE is gonna harrass you on this one, I guess I should. So ... pretend I'm a modern, enlightenment type for a minute.

    Us enlightenment types have a fairly strong compulsion to favor the *true* above the *helpful*. That is, we think that a person ought not make believe that a particular proposition is true simply because it makes him feel good, or helps him be virtuous, or whatever. He should only believe a proposition is true if its truth can be demonstrated fairly conclusively. Otherwise, his obligation -- his moral obligation -- is to reserve judgment on the truth of that proposition.

    To go a bit further, I think we enlightenment types would argue that maintaining a pleasant illusion is not only intellectually dishonest, but actually harmful to ourselves and those around us. So the truth may sting, but the silent killers are lies unsubstantiated beliefs and outright lies.

    Given that even hard truths are preferable to pleasant lies, you're coming at the idea of God from the wrong direction. If you can't demonstrate the truth of the God idea, then it doesn't make any difference whether it is helpful. You have a moral obligation to prefer the true to the helpful.

  6. Hi Matthew,
    You said: "If you can't demonstrate the truth of the God idea, then it doesn't make any difference whether it is helpful. You have a moral obligation to prefer the true to the helpful."

    I would say that in a vacuum of information pragmatics become very much the issue, morally speaking. Which is better Capitalism or Socialism? It is a very important question for the conduct of life. But the resolution of the issue rests very much on pragmatics versus "truth." Which produces more goodness in people: Theism (as I defined it in this post) or atheism? The ontological question can't be decided between them. But one does have to choose. Just like one has to decide how to construct a society. But one might say, you would be more intellectually honest if you went with the conservative, atheistic conclusion (Occam's Razor and all). But why should that be so? That's a value judgment. Who gets to say what is honest or best here? And why? Further, what if theism did produce more moral lives? Wouldn't that count as evidence? What if the evidence of theism can only be produced on more grounds?

    The point is, as far as I can tell, the issue of being an atheist or a theist isn't one about "truth" at all (as the question isn't empirical) but solely about pragmatism.

    This is, btw, why I fully approve of leaving Christianity on moral grounds. That is, if Christianity isn't producing goodness in you then get out. It's not working. But if it is working for you, why get out simply to conform to some anemic definition of "truth"?

  7. I just discovered your blog. I will return. Thanks for stimulating the brain waves.

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