Grasping at Belief : Week 2

Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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35 Responses

  1. greginak says:

    On the topic of people sticking with a belief after a prophecy fails there is a classic pysch book When Prophecy Fails that discusses this question from a scientific psychological view. I know that is not what your post is about at all, but its interesting stuff and related in any case.


    • Mary in reply to greginak says:

      As a person ceaselessly interested in human behavior, I appreciate the comment greginak. I will add the book to my list. Just anticipating the reading makes me nostaligic for the days and nights spent studying for my undergraduate degree in psychology.Report

  2. Chris B. says:

    I would just like to push back against a common dichotomy that is often found in both Christian and non-Christian circles regarding the Old Testament and the New.

    The dichotomy:
    Old Testament God equals a harsh, judgmental, and severe
    New Testament God equals love, peace, and grace

    I think it is wrong to use this dichotomy because as a follower of Christ myself it is all one story to me.

    Is there a lot of judgement found in the old testament? Yes, of course. But think about the amount of time covered in the old testament. It is easy to focus on the judgement because that is what catches the eye but when you consider the amount of time involved you also catch a glimpse of God’s patience as well.

    For instance, you look at when Joshua was leading Israel into Canaan and you see God’s command to eliminate the people. What is often not discussed is that the people that existed in Canaan had been living there for at least 400 years (the time that Israel had been slaves in Egypt). That was 400 years that God has suspended judgement against the Canaanites for their sin. Then the implication was that even after the Canaanites had heard at least 40 years earlier the judgement against Egypt then Israel was allowed to come in and possess their land.

    Then you could look at the endless succession of both good and bad kings that Judah and Israel had and I can’t help but see that God repeatedly suspends judgement until finally he has had enough and allows first Israel and then Judah to be conquered.

    I would recommend that you read an article that has been influential on my thinking on this entitled Reconciling the God of Love with the God of Genocide found in the September/October issue of Relevant Magazine. Relevant has yet to publish the article as a stand alone article to read online but the author has posted two different ways to read it here:

    • Christopher Carr in reply to Chris B. says:

      The Old Testament is indeed large enough to paint a picture of every kind of God imaginable, including God the pedant, as seen in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – i.e. the Pentateuch without stories and stuff.Report

  3. wardsmith says:

    Yeah, a man could never be eaten by a fish – unless it wanted toReport

  4. Alex Knapp says:

    Ugh… too bad you only read part of Jonah, because what happens NEXT is the real meat of the story.Report

    • Matt Huisman in reply to Alex Knapp says:

      I’m with Alex on this one, you need to read what’s next.  Keep your eye on the relationship between God and Jonah (they named the book after him) – that’s the story.  (We’re not given the story of every citizen of Ninevah.)

      With respect to your distaste for end times preaching, let’s not let every krank/charlatan distract from reality.  All preaching has an element of doom and gloom involved (in the long run we’re all dead).  Either we recognize our need and accept Jonah’s message or we laugh at him.

      Which is why I tend to think the “forty days or else” has more to do with Jonah.  It’s not a necessary condition for Ninevah to be saved.  It is required to deal with Jonah.Report

      • J.L. Wall in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        Let me second, third, fourth, or whatever this.  The ending’s quite something.  But don’t forget the beginning, too — because we’re basically told from the get-go that God’s going to forgive Nineveh.  That’s why Jonah tries to escape and gets swallowed by that great big fish — because God’s a big softie and Jonah’s going to look like a fool when Nineveh isn’t reduced to smoldering ruins of doom and death.  And he wants no part of this “forgiveness” BS.


  5. Will H. says:

    I’m sorry for you that this is the passage from Jonah that you had to read.
    The meaningful part, for me, comes in Chapter 4.

    Jonah was really afraid when he was called upon to be a prophet, because most prophets met with an untimely end. He tried to out-run his fate, but it caught up with him. He went to Nineveh, expecting to be strung up, and instead they listened to him.
    In Chapter 4, Jonah is sitting outside of the city, ticked off at what all he had to go through, and nothing happened. God makes a little tree grow to give Jonah some shade. Then he sends a worm to kill the tree. Jonah gets ticked again. Then the really good exchange comes:
    And God said to Jonah, “Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd?” And he said, “I do well to be angry, even unto death.” Then said the Lord, “Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?”

    To me, that’s the good part.Report

    • John Casey in reply to Will H. says:

      “and also much cattle?”

      God of the pastorilists, indeed.


      • Will H. in reply to John Casey says:

        I am told that the phrase “persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand” is quite literal, and refers to small children.
        Nineveh was quite a big place; took Jonah three days to walk from one side of it to the other.Report

        • Will H. in reply to Will H. says:

          I believe that “cattle” is a reference to wealth.Report

          • J.L. Wall in reply to Will H. says:

            Typically, yes, it’s got some connection of the kind — but in Jonah, just after the bit with the tiny tree, the many cattle are creatures that God would have cause to care about at least as much as Jonah cared about his gourd (they’re not people, but they’re a “higher” kind of life than a small plant).Report

  6. Caleb says:

    I agree with Alex Knapp. The focus of the story is not the forestalled destruction of Nineveh, but Jonah’s reaction to God’s mercy on the city.

    I think you have disposition of Nineveh correct. It is not a sympathetic place. It’s supposed to be the type of place that we see in old westerns, before the gunslinger hero comes in and “cleans the place up.” We’re supposed to cheer when the bad guys get their due. No amount of repentance can save them from karmic justice. In fact, we feel cheated when a “bad guy” makes a last minute appeal to mercy and gets away scott free. It’s not fair.

    From the premise of an omniscient God, rather than an open theism that you (understandably) find attractive, God spares Nineveh because He knew they would repent when faced with the news of divine justice, not because the news of immanent destruction caused them to repent. From Jonah’s point of view, however, he knew that Nineveh deserved justice and destruction. So when his message is the instrument of Nineveh’s salvation, he is understandably upset. How could God spare such an evil place from the punishment it so rightly deserved based on a hasty and rather convenient change of heart?

    However, later in the story, Jonah is upset when God takes from him something (a shade-providing plant) that Jonah had done nothing to deserve, and which God himself had provided. God then makes a relevant point: How could you be upset at Me for taking away such a small mercy from you, and yet also be upset at Me for providing a much larger mercy to the city of Nineveh?

    In regards to the apocalyptic judgement scenario, you are absolutely right. There is no extrinsic evidence that such a level of physical destruction has happened to human society in direct causal relation to their behavior in apposite to some divine moral code, despite prophetic prediction to the contrary. (Note, for comparison, the claims of radical religious sects who claim that certain natural phenomena occur for such reasons.)  I believe the value of apocalyptic judgement narratives lies not in their predictive power, but in their modeling of human moral expectations. ( I happen to be completely agnostic towards Biblical eschatology.) We expect, in a universe dominated by a morally uni-polar theistic entity, to have a certain amount of retributive justice meted out against those entities which act against the divine moral code. When this doesn’t happen, many people tend to make two broad assumptions. 1) Atheists take it as evidence against a god. (Why don’t bad things happen to bad people?) 2) Many theists take it as a sign of delayed judgement. Both these ignore a third possibility: Mercy.

    In the end, I think the point of the story of Jonah is contrasting how the attributes of Justice and Mercy often conflict in the human mind. On one level, we want people to get their comeuppance for the bad things they’ve done. On another, we know that if our actions are judged on the standard of some infinitely perfect moral standard, we are screwed. So we fudge when our butts are on the line, but are strict when its anyone else. Jonah shows that, from the perspective of an infinite moral being, such double standards are intolerable. What I find comforting about the story of Jonah is that, even in the Old testament, God is erring on the side Mercy rather than Justice.Report

    • Michelle in reply to Caleb says:

      My take on Jonah is a bit different. The story of Jonah is part of the haftorah portion of the afternoon Yom Kippur service. In the Jewish tradition, it is a story of redemption and forgiveness, and part of the holiday’s theme that through true repentance and “turning” an individual can redeem themselves in the eyes of the community and G-d.  The message I’ve always taken away from the Nineveh story is that no matter what you’ve done, it’s never too late to find your way back to G-d, to make amendment to G-d, your family, and your community. The G-d of the Israelites is both a G-d of mercy and a G-d of justice.Report

      • Matt Huisman in reply to Michelle says:

        True enough, Michelle.  Jonah’s New Testament twin is the story of the Prodigal Son – who like Ninevah returns and is redeemed/restored.  In the same way, Jonah is the prodigal’s older brother struggling with the father’s acceptance of his slacker sibling.

        The emphasis in each story is different, but all the same major elements are there.Report

  7. The Reason says:

    Mr. Kelly,

    Your cynicism will continue to taint your views as long as you want it to. You yourself admit that this story is different than many in the Old Testament BECAUSE there is no smiting. So, in your mind, can the Bible win? What will you say if asked to contemplate Soddom and Gomorrah? Now the fury of God pours down so severely that even Lot’s wife is destroyed for simply looking back against God’s command.

    I do not see how dissecting each story and giving a potential Tod (with a capital “T”) alternative version is constructive for anyone…particularly you.

    Let me ask you this…if there were no intelligent design then what happened? The Big Bang Theory, while an entertaining sitcom, states that from nothing came everything stuffed into a dot the size of the head of a pin. Suppose that’s how it came to pass…who created the dot? Who created space-time? Search yourself for that answer and it may open your mind to something bigger than you will accept at this moment.


    • Caleb in reply to The Reason says:

      Mr. Kelly’s “cynicism” (or, more accurately, rational skepticism) is a fundamental premise of his inquiry into the matter of the Christian religion. You can no more challenge him to surrender it than you can ask a man to appreciate a sunset with his eyes closed.

      Further, Mr. Kelly’s inquiry into this matter shows a far more developed sense of intellectual curiosity and openness than many theists or atheists show. He deserves engagement on his own terms rather than the contemptuous insistence that he adopt Christian or theistic premises.Report

      • The Reason in reply to Caleb says:

        My point is not that Mr. Kelly must accept anything blindly. My point is that if he goes into this pursuit from a decided stance of “if I can’t shoot holes in your story then I can’t accept it at face value” he will never be ‘convinced’.

        My entry point to belief was creation so I suggested starting from the beginning.Report

        • Burt Likko in reply to The Reason says:

          This is a misunderstanding of his posture. He’s undertaken a sincere search.

          Protip: attacking someone is not reasonably likely to result in persuading that person to agree with you.Report

          • The Reason in reply to Burt Likko says:

            I hope my reply did not come across as a “attack”. It certainly wasn’t meant to be. What I hope to convey is that Mr. Kelly admits that much of the Old Testament depicts supernatural punishment from God. In the same breath he then equates the mercy depicted here with false doomsday predictions of pseudo recent years. In essence God can’t win. If He smites then he is the vengeful God that Mr. Kelly finds undeserving of Godship. If He shows mercy then He is an alarmist false prophet.

            I applaud Mr. Kelly’s pursuit, but I believe he must do more to leave his preconceptions behind if he is to truly open himself to this great a belief.


    • John Casey in reply to The Reason says:

      If the beginning of the universe without a deity is a mystery to you, how is it that the existence of that deity without a proto-deity is not also a mystery? How do you avoid the infinite regress.

      Given a dense, consistent theory of the universe after the first fraction of second that is well supported by evidence, I am content to say of that first fraction of a second, ‘I dunno. Maybe we’ll know tomorrow.”


      • The Reason in reply to John Casey says:

        Mr. Casey,

        I have thought about this a great deal. My conclusion is that “eternal God” means more than “forever”. In the Old Testament God refers to himself as “I Am”. My reaction to this is that God (YHWH) simply is, was and will be. My observations are limited to the confines of three spacial dimensions and space-time. Infinity is beyond my grasp but I believe the answer lies there. We, the created, had a beginning. The Creator did not. I wish I knew more specifics and hope to one day.


        • James K in reply to The Reason says:

          If a god can exist without being created, why not allow that the universe can exist without being created?  After all the Big Bang is merely a point beyond which we can’t see because the Bang itself erases all evidence of what happened before.

          The laws of physics already state that matter-energy cannot be created or destroyed so we already have reasons to think the stuff composing the universe was in some sense always here.Report

          • The Reason in reply to James K says:

            The obvious answer to this is “who knows?” .

            My personal response would be that the laws of physics apply to what we can observe, which is finite. That which is eternal (my God) is infinite and is beyond my finite abilities to quantify.

            So to me it boils down to this: God can exist because He IS eternity/infinity. The Universe WAS created as evidenced by the fact that it is finite and measureable.

            As I said, I mentioned this as an entry point to belief in a creator. I’m not trying to hammer down the details because that’s simply an impossible task.


  8. Ian M. says:

    Read The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine PagelsReport

  9. Jonathan says:

    Is this endeavour on hiatus, Tod, or am I just missing some more recent posts. Either way, I hope to read some more about your journey, soon.Report