Letter to Peter

Chapter 7: Salvation

Saved from what?

It seems a strange idea that "we should need to be saved". Have we trodden on the feet of a vengeful God who is on the warpath for revenge ? In our terminology the question is whether the belief in our need for salvation is:

  1. fundamentally part of a self-propagating belief superstructure
  2. fundamentally an incidental belief (perhaps a hangover from guilt feelings as a child), or
  3. something true and profound about people and the world.

Clearly, there are bits of the belief that are mixed up with the superstructure, but is that all it is? One perspective is as follows: We are cannon fodder in the evolutionary process, off-cuts which are thrown out part way down a conveyer belt making something else. There is a grand design (improvement of people through survival of the fittest; in a million years our descendants will live to a thousand, have an IQ of 300 and look like melon heads. Now, why doesn’t that cheer me up?) However, we are just an incidental short-term by-product, with the same evolutionary process determining much of our "default" belief and outlook. The process of evolution has equipped us with selfish instinct, but with some controls on our behaviour (our conscience, for example). Evolution will also ensure we do not (on average) get too concerned about the whole thing, since depression would disadvantage us.

At some point in the process of evolution, presumably, a partly conscious prototype appeared; if you prefer the words, evolution "discovered" the remarkable property of some complex systems to be conscious. Consciousness assisted the prototype to compete, since it allowed complex and adaptive survival strategies and accelerated learning from mistakes. Hence, this characteristic becomes stronger. However, apart from a notion about how consciousness might have been "found" and our own knowledge of what it is like to be conscious, we can get no further into this mystery. We cannot understand anything much of interest about the nature of the link with our bodies, apart, of course, from the fact that changing levels of some chemicals directly affects "us".

The production process is wasteful. There is plenty of suffering and disease, from competition with other organisms (like bacteria), from death (making way for the next set of proto-types), from disability (and other genetic experimentation), from the selfishness of other people, from people’s distorted or frustrated sexuality (the design process optimises our sexuality with an engine too powerful for its brakes) or from the actions of people affected by the parasitic beliefs which evolve alongside (racism, the Nazi party etc.).

Is that the story? That we occur as we are, by this process? That if we want, we can sit on the conveyer belt and follow the course of our lives through until we eventually get discarded at the next stage? We might have some children who start the whole process again. Having children means we partake in a greater rhythm, jumping forward through the tide of time, lasting longer than individuals do, maybe even for as long as humanity does. Is this the only rhythm we can dance to? Is there any other "Mexican wave" we can start? Are there other things that are happening in which we can participate? Perhaps something cultural or, say, the development of human science? Can we make ourselves part of a greater whole, by sharing a vision or is that just an illusion and part of our programming?

And what of God? Is "God" just part of a belief superstructure (perhaps the relevant question is whether the superstructure is all there is). Alternatively, is there another conscious being somehow associated with the whole process? Or is God the owner and designer of the factory where evolution pulls the levers? If you want to get much further with questions about what the "story" is into which we fit, you have to enter the realm of religions. You may have to abandon the scientific method but you should not leave your common sense behind. Science leaves plenty of room for religion.

In Christianity, we are told that the world is fallen, imperfect and full of suffering and imperfection. We are born into a state of original sin. The starting point is very similar to the above picture. Talking about "saving us" does not look quite so silly in the circumstances, although maybe it is saving us from the meaningless cycle of the universe rather than "hell". Christianity has a claim of offering a way out. You can give up your "natural" course of life and make yourself into something better, but first you must put yourself to death?

Cast off your flesh

However, we are jumping too quickly ahead. If you pick up a Bible and look for guidance on behaviour, to start with you find a framework of behaviour (and hygiene) for community living, given by a mighty God. Then the main thrust becomes not so much a question of conforming to rules to preserve a community, but a matter of renewal, of casting off the flesh we have inherited. We are told that we have come out of the mire to be something that could have a meaning, and could be made valuable, but this involves breaking out and abandoning some of our instinct. Mind over matter, but we are so tied into our physical bodies that it is not as easy as it seems. If you think I struggle to get ideas across, you should read Romans.

The requirement is no longer primarily simply the community good, and goes further than obligation and duty, it is about making something of ourselves (not in a material sense). We can be free of all the inbuilt pressures to act in a given way, and be pardoned from "guilt". Guilt, crime and punishment, retribution, the need to earn forgiveness, reinforcement for the status of the rich/powerful and all the other props for our evolved society have gone. They were nailed to the cross. We are left with a religion often at odds with society and its values. Christianity is a "rebel" religion.

Putting our instincts to death is far from easy, and a lot of religious teaching is concerned with this. Putting to death something of us is also a dangerous concept. It might be a thinly disguised pretence for undermining our rationality and brainwashing us; we might throw out the baby with the bath water. Many belief superstructures have worked "putting to death" into their core. Time for another of my (this time rather cynical) poems!


"DEAD, Dead!" the preacher said
"All is gone, your sins are dead.
Kill them! Kill them dead!" he said
"Gouge your eyes blood red in dread,
Amputate your head!" he said,
"Your sins you must unwed," he said
"And purge 'til they're bled dead."

"Hate, Hate!" he preached "The great
Evil in you which hangs, a weight,
On you, and Christ, and was his fate.
Goodness now is all too late
All your guilt's marked on a slate.
Christ died to cure your twisted state."
So, Rigor Mortis makes you straight?

"Why, Why?" the preacher cried
"Don't you repent, don't you change side
To join in death in Christentide,
Rejoicing in the lamb that died.
Come, sharing in the speared side,
Know the evil you once denied."
They joined with him; indeed all died.

"Preach, preach..." says Jesus " Teach
That death brings life to those who reach
Love, past life, who thirst and seek.
All fruits; truth, joy and peace in each
I raise from death's refining bleach ...
But, Preacher, "death" is all you preach..
What can I raise in those you teach?"

Clearly, I think that putting to death is only part of the story. There is no point if we do not become better and more fulfilled people in the process.

There are lots of images around our baptism being a process of sharing in Christ’s death (going under the water) in order to rise with him in new life (as we emerge from the water). There are a lot of things said about Christ’s painful death being necessary for this all to be possible. There are a lot of images to help us to participate in this experience. They are however images to help us participate not facts on which to build theories.

I think that for some people, sociological guilt-feelings are so deep-grained it takes a powerful image to get them to realise "justice is dead" (someone else has already been tortured to death and paid the price?) and liberate them from guilt. This argument should not be taken lightly; we cannot escape our feelings and just leave our physical bodies behind. We have little emotional capacity to cope with atrocious news without losing our sensitivity to the world around us. Strong images which meet us deep inside our own "story" may help to overcome the strong instinctive and emotional reactions that guilt produces in us. Personally, I find the Biblical pictures which portray the cross and resurrection as the and death of "justice" mean far more and make more sense to me than any derived theory that it was "justice" for an innocent man to suffer. This is a parallel image to the death of the selfish gene once we become conscious. I do not suppose it really matters; the truth is so far beyond our words.

Anyway, as I was saying, before I so rudely interrupted myself. At first, the Christian (Jewish) teaching (in the Old Testament) is to conform closely to a set of social rules and put to death those who do not conform. Later, beliefs appear that are none of these; does it really help the survival of a community to turn the other cheek in the face of evil, or forgive people seven times seventy times? What community is bothered by my "sins of the heart"? What community could tolerate free pardon for past transgression? What community could tolerate attacks on its religious leaders (the Pharisees: "like a whitewashed tomb") and its system of values (e.g. "it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle)? The answer is clear, the community could not tolerate the perpetrator, and so they crucified him. These things do not fit with the role of religion above; they are part of another agenda. The agenda includes the abandonment of those community rules that arose from evolution (no surprise that they are only partly separable).

The teachings of Jesus Christ were as far as I can possibly tell, (but look at the history, it is important enough to do this for yourself) not in any sense the product of institutionalised religion, although the interpretation since is another matter. They were opposed to the institution, and this opposition was ultimately the cause of his death at its hands. Somehow, however, when they appeared in this individual, there was an echo running backwards through the history and Old Testament, of the kind which is only evident with hindsight. The echo was of something in the religion, which was always in conflict with the institution. I repeat my whole paragraph from earlier.

"From a Christian perspective, the principal Biblical conflict portrayed is not so much between good and evil, as between superstructure and the real religious kernel. One glimpse is the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees are an extreme case of evolved religion that has lost sight of its own heart, but appears ultra-conforming to rules intended to produce a completely different outcome. Another is between "the Kingdom of Israel" and "the Kingdom of God" , both in the Old Testament where the former tries to hijack the latter and in the New Testament in terms of different expectations of Messiah. There are other glimpses between the priests of the temple and the prophets of the wilderness (read Jeremiah), and between the Christ and anti-Christ in the book of Revelation. It is sad that some people never see more than the superstructure. It is strange that we do not discuss these conflicts more frequently, as I believe they are of the essence of religion. Incidentally, perhaps the second most important conflict in the Bible is a strongly analogous one; between our "old natures" and our "new natures". I call it parallel since we can no more completely rid religion (which has to have an associated belief system) from the maladies which afflict belief systems when they evolve, than we can completely rid ourselves (who have to have a body) of things that result from our own and society’s evolution."

Saved to become what?

The whole pattern of our existence is tied up with the idea that creation itself requires suffering and death. It is only through the sacrifice of one generation (with imperfections) that another generation can evolve. We have said that for communities to survive they have to generate their own codes of behaviour, which are psychologically (guilt), socially, and legally enforced. No surprise that these codes of behaviour become sociological systems, like the ones described, and carry reinforcing beliefs (e.g. hell; or before people believed in hell, punishment for your children until the seventh generation).

Ecclesiastes worked hard and built a magnificent kingdom. He had money, women, palaces and wisdom. He found he had made himself satisfied dreaming whilst he strived to build this all up, but that once he had achieved everything he had dreamt of it was all meaningless. He summarised the frustrations of life and success:

"Everything is meaningless. What does a man gain by all the toil he does under the sun? A generation comes, and a generation goes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes round to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns... All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be; there is nothing new under the sun... I have seen everything which is done under the sun; and behold it is all meaningless, like chasing after the wind" .

From a perspective of meaninglessness; that the earth would turn onward, and finally, all that rested for each of us was to obey our community rules, sacrifice ourselves on the mill, or have children to remember us, we have no real expectation. There was no real mention of life after death in the Old Testament. The work of Adam was futile, with frustration and weeds; Ecclesiastes had no satisfaction in his rest after his works, the death of the Pascal lamb and Isaiah's servant brought no relief from a perspective of futility. The only dream was a return to an old earthly Kingdom of Israel, which Ecclestiastes had already de-bunked as of no meaning.

Then we hear something different. We notice a new tune and then realise it had been playing for longer than we thought, right back to the beginning. The teaching (true or false) is about breaking out of our "natures"; which is the way that we are, because of the way that we come about. We can become something else. Justice was one of the aspects of old order that died on the cross. We are no longer driven by desire to satisfy our side of community rules (an eye for an eye), but now can break free from these chains of creation.

"For the creation was subjected to frustration... groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.
Groaning as in the pains of childbirth? I cannot begin to explain how remarkable this is as an image. The passage explores the image that "the problem" with the world is the same as that of an expectant mother. I have seen people grow old and die in pain, I have seen young people die in pain and I have seen childbirth where the pain is sometimes worse. Suffering is necessary because of evolution; now we are saying the suffering is part of a grander scheme, of creation of something worthwhile. There is a gulf of difference: the pain of childbirth has an excitement and purpose to it, which suffering in the world in general, lacks. However, once we understand death and destruction are part of creation, the emphasis changes and it all just starts to make sense. The pain of the world may be really birth pangs.

There is a very good illustration of the difference in a long first world war poem (written in dialect) called "I know not where they have laid him" by G.A. Studdert Kennedy , where a mother mourns the loss of her son, lying on a distant battle-ground. It is a very earthy poem, with the mother saying that even if she was foolish, she wanted to know about what had happened to the flesh she bore, and wanted to know what body her son would have now. The mother goes on to wonder how her son’s resurrection body is made and whether she can have any part in the re-birth:

Who will be bearin’ the mother’s part
         And be makin’ your body, boy?
Who will be `avin’ the mother’s pain
         And feeling the mother’s joy?
Maybe the body as `e shall wear
          Is born of my breaking heart
Maybe these pains are the new birth pangs
         What’ll give my laddie `is start
Then I’d trouble not `ow hard they was,
          I’d gladly go through the mill,
If that noo body `e wore were mine,
          And I were `is mother still.

The poem is (I think) an allegory for the world: no doubt, we suffer (in between happy pills perhaps), but perhaps there is something to make it worthwhile. Adam’s curse was putting pain into childbirth; Christ’s cure was putting childbirth into pain. Our physical birth is just a picture for our having a real existence beyond the mundane.

It is good news today (if true) because it means the creation of the world is not suffering birth pangs to evolve "melon heads in a million years", it is suffering the birth pangs to evolve us. We have an option of leaving the conveyer belt, putting to death our instinctive behaviours (although we will never quite shed them because we are made of flesh) and being born again as something of more significance. We can participate in Christ’s death and hope to participate in his resurrection. The origin of these beliefs is not evolutionary inside the body of an institutionalised religion, to reinforce behaviour. The origin is over a very brief period a long time ago. No doubt the institution is still keen to conquer this outrage, and still manages to corrupt it. There is no entrance fee, except dropping things that we now recognise are worth nothing anyway; the only exclusion is self-exclusion.

Indeed the idea of "unearned redemption" is so difficult for social systems to accept, that they constantly corrupt it, and try to return to judgement by the law. For example, look at church history: faced with forgiveness if you simply repented from your sin, the Roman Catholic Church brought in the idea that forgiveness cannot be realised unless "penance" is real, and introduced a system of punishment to "make real your penance" before you could be forgiven. This is a reversion to institutional rules, which like people to be punished. Martin Luther then went full circle claiming that Christ had paid our penance on the cross , and got back in a contrived way to salvation without works.

There is a parallel set of images. Our participation in Christ's death kills the things we were born as, our "natural flesh". Our participation in Christ’s resurrection is like our discovery that, when we abandon the world’s view (which comes from the competition of our bodies, communities and belief systems), we can become conscious rational beings able to think and decide for ourselves.

And what might our resurrection be? Even if you take the minimalist God "inside the universe" then in some way, God is a conscious being, associated with the whole universe, like you are associated with your bunch of atoms. God will remember you and maybe his memory of you will even be conscious. Certainly his memory of you will be of what you are (were) and you are what you think and do (thought and did). Perhaps God is the conveyor belt factory owner, again you must decide. Perhaps there is somewhere else where your mind will be re-booted up. It may not make much difference in the end.

I am sure you know the rest. It may all be rubbish, it may all be true, but our participation in the religious process requires narrative and I am a hopeless storyteller. It is frightening when you find yourself on the brink of something so strange but so important.

When the universe is viewed like this, personally I find it starts to make some sense. Could this Christian outlook be a basis whereby people can become free, and share a vision for the world. Perhaps, but I suspect true religion meets us as individuals, and is bound to go wrong when we respond as groups. We cannot know that we are right, nor that our perspective is the only solution but (as we are our brother's keeper) we have some concern to try to liberate people in this way. Doubtless, we will be mistaken continually for what we are not, but the vision is not one in which we should be too concerned about what other people think. We must do what we think is right, try to correct other people and live out our lives in the vision of the Resurrection. We must also accept we may be wrong.

Letter to Peter next chapter

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