A man and woman sat chatting in a large room

A Conversation with Sandra

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What follows is a made-up dialogue between myself and my fictional Christian friend, ‘Sandra’. I hope that after reading it you will understand my predicament surrounding the Christian faith a little more clearly.

Sandra:

I’ve got to be honest with you, Steven. I’ve felt myself backsliding recently. I don’t read the Bible as much as I used to and I’ve only been to church once in the last two months. The thing is, I feel so depressed without God.

Steven:

I can understand your frustration. However, the reality of God is that He doesn’t come and go, so you mustn’t use that phrase ‘without God’. Just as God was in control of your life when you were devotedly reading the Bible, He is still in control of your life now, only in a different way. The guilt that you feel is also from God – it’s just a different mode of mind under His control. So rest assured that everything you’re going through is part of God’s will for your life.

Sandra:

Well, thanks Steven. That is a comforting thought. But what makes you think God is in control of every area of my life? Are you saying I don’t have free will? I couldn’t accept that, because the Bible describes me as a fallen sinner in need of salvation. I have walked away from God, and that is why I’m hurting.

Steven:

I appreciate that you’re hurting right now, but you might find some consolation by looking at things in a slightly different way. I would like to ask you to reflect deeply on two questions: What is God? and Where is God?

When I deeply considered the answers to these questions myself, I realised that God must be pure spirit without boundaries. It didn’t make sense to me that there could be limits to the extent of God’s being, as when I examined my own consciousness, I intuited that it was something free from any kind of form or container. If there are no limits to my own consciousness, that means that there is only one consciousness. I equate that one consciousness with God.

Sandra:

It sounds to me as though you’re saying you are God!

Steven:

Well, I believe there is a sense in which my consciousness is the same as God’s consciousness, that’s true. However, my consciousness is experienced through the vessel of the body and its five senses, whereas God has no such limitations, and I believe He is most likely aware of all that exists, all of the time. So there is a distinction between creaturely consciousness and God consciousness. We experience things in the human dimension of reality, while God experiences things in a more deep and vibrant way in the ultimate dimension.

Sandra:

How can you claim to know what God experiences?

Steven:

I cannot, for sure. But what gave me confidence in this perspective was firstly examining my own consciousness and its apparent boundlessness, and also an experience I had when meditating deeply some years ago, when I felt my bodily form dissolve into a feeling of expansive bliss. The blissful feeling was one of a far greater wholeness and completeness than I have ever experienced in my regular waking state, and so this led me to speculate that God experiences this kind of blissful awareness at all times.

Sandra:

But that was just an experience you had. How is it linked to God?

Steven:

I would refer once again to my understanding of consciousness as being boundless. The boundlessness of existence means that everything that exists is a part of God. So there is a sense in which I believe God is my ‘higher self’. If I were to die right now, or meditate deeply, I might once again connect with the deeper awareness and pure bliss that I believe is the essence of God.

Sandra:

You seem to be describing God as an impersonal feeling. The Bible teaches that God is personal. What would you have to say about that?

Steven:

I believe God is personal, in that He is able to give creatures a feeling of separateness from Him and communicate with them directly by talking to their minds. He can make us feel isolated and identified with our human bodies and He can also talk to us as though He is a separate being. Again, this is because we are experiencing things through the senses.

Think of it this way. God is the great ‘I AM’. He is all that exists. Think of Him like an infinitely large oak tree, and think of us as the branches on the tree. God’s life force flows through the whole tree, but each branch has a kind of independent existence, even though really it is part of the tree. It’s an imperfect analogy, but I believe it captures something of our relationship with God.

Sandra:

So we’re simultaneously part of God but also experience things in a different way to Him?

Steven:

Yes, I think so. We could describe all of our activities as having a primary and secondary cause. Everything we do is orchestrated by God in the divine dimension, but we feel we are doing things ourselves in the human dimension. God is the primary cause, and we are the secondary cause. The important point is that there is no freedom in the secondary cause, because our actions are 100% under the control of the primary cause, which is God.

Sandra:

You believe I am 100% under God’s control?

Steven:

Yes, and I believe you intuitively know this. When you pray a prayer along the lines of “God, please let my job interview go well” or “Lord, please bless my marriage”, you are implicitly acknowledging that God is controlling the events of your life. If this wasn’t the case, it wouldn’t make sense to pray in such a way.

Sandra:

Actually, I believe God isn’t in control of everything, but He can and does intervene sometimes.

Steven:

I appreciate that Christians often describe things in such a way. However, the omnipresence of God means that in reality, there is no room for free will. For there to be free will there would have to be separateness from God, but as I have already explained, I don’t believe God’s being has boundaries.

I notice that you haven’t denied that you pray in a way that implicitly acknowledges God is controlling and unfolding all of the events of your life.

Sandra:

Well, I’ll think about that. But can’t God be omnipresent and we still have free will?

Steven:

No. The two ideas are logically contradictory. For anyone to act freely they would have to not be under God’s control, but if everything that exists is contained within God, it logically follows that everything that exists must be under God’s control.

Sandra:

I’m sorry, I can’t accept this. The Bible says I’m a sinner in need of salvation. The Bible is the Word of God. Do you think you know better than God?

Steven:

All I do is try to be honest. I appreciate that the Christian gospel is very compelling. It compelled me to get baptised, and it compelled me to go out on the streets and evangelise. But during my time as a Christian I was never able to honestly resolve the free will predicament, because I believe it is an area of Christian theology which does not make sense.

Sandra:

Couldn’t it be you that’s incorrect, rather than the Bible?

Steven:

The Bible can be understood and interpreted in very many different ways, which is evidenced by the existence of multiple different denominations and schools of thought within Christianity. Christians have been disagreeing with one another for two thousand years. So it’s difficult to sweepingly say whether the Bible is ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’.

Sandra:

Christians only disagree because human beings are imperfect. The Word of God is not imperfect, it is perfect.

Steven:

Well, in response to that argument, we have to look at hermeneutics, the way things come to have meaning. If you think about it, the contents of the Bible is lines and curly symbols impressed upon a white background. Lines and curly symbols upon a white background do not contain inherent meaning. What makes the written word meaningful is God bringing meaning to our minds as we read and reflect. Any single sentence can potentially be read and interpreted in an infinite number of ways.

Sandra:

So the Bible could mean anything? I disagree. Words are symbols that communicate.

Steven:

Have you considered the way in which words communicate? I don’t wish to repeat myself, but let me offer an analogy. Have you ever had the experience of looking at the clouds in the sky, and seeing the form of a creature or an object? Then a few moments later you can see the same cloud formation as though it is a completely different and unrelated object. You can playfully imagine that the clouds are like paintings of different creatures or objects.

Sandra:

Yes, but you’re talking about clouds, I’m talking about the Word of God.

Steven:

In terms of my hermeneutic, there is no difference. Just as clouds do not contain intrinsic meaning, neither do the lines and curly symbols on a page. The way we understand something depends on God bringing a particular understanding to our awareness, and there are no limits to the ways in which God might do this.

Sandra:

So you think I could look at a cat and see a dog?

Steven:

Yes, I think that it’s entirely possible for you to look at a cat and think ‘dog’. I have tried a similar thought experiment, which I described and elaborated upon in my book The Philosophy of a Mad Man.

Sandra:

Why are you always plugging your books endlessly!?

Steven:

Because I believe they represent an important contribution to the fields of philosophy and theology.

Sandra:

Well, I believe Jesus over you any day. Jesus is God, you’re just a human who calls himself a philosopher, which I think is a bit arrogant, actually.

Steven:

I respect your desire to honour God and live in accordance with Biblical theology. The Christian Scriptures are incredibly compelling, as is evidenced by their persistence over the last two millennia.

Sandra:

Exactly, two thousand years of the Christian faith must mean Christianity is the true religion of God.

Steven:

I don’t accept that argument. Just because something persists for a long time doesn’t make it true. It means it’s appealing in some way, but not necessarily true.

Sandra:

How do you know that what you’re saying is ‘true’?

Steven:

I just talk and write honestly. That is all that I do.

Sandra:

Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life!

Steven:

Billions of people have a different understanding of Jesus, but I agree that the way in which Jesus spoke as presented in the New Testament is incredibly compelling.

Sandra:

You just need to read the Bible more, surround yourself with God’s people, get planted in a good church, pray honestly, and God will keep you in His Kingdom and give you eternal life.

Steven:

I wish it were so easy to dismiss the inconsistencies and apparent problems contained within Christian doctrine, but I find they are ever present in my mind, and to deny them would be like living a lie.

Sandra:

Living a lie? Jesus is the TRUTH!

Steven:

It is a difficult predicament. How can I be a Christian when, to me at least, the central doctrines and tenets of the Christian faith don’t make sense?

Sandra:

The devil is liar! You’re being deceived.

Steven:

Well, I would have to refer you back to my understanding that God is in control of everything that happens. If the devil exists, the devil is also under God’s control. I don’t believe I have any free choice about what I think and write, because I don’t believe I have free will.

Sandra:

You’re being unbiblical again.

Steven:

I’m just speaking honestly.

Sandra:

You are choosing to abandon the Christian faith.

Steven:

I’m simply speaking honestly about those areas of Christian doctrine which don’t make sense to me. Have you heard of Pascal’s Wager? Pascal put forth the idea that the wisest way to live is as a Christian, because if Christianity is true, the penalty for those who deny Christ is everlasting suffering, but if you become a Christian and Christianity is untrue, you have lost relatively little.

Sandra:

Exactly. It makes much more sense to be a Christian.

Steven:

From a certain perspective, it does. But there are also other perspectives which billions of people have, and also, when I have tried to live a committed Christian life in spite of my problems with Christian doctrine, I found it was almost impossible, as these problems were relevant to every church service, every house group meeting, every coffee with my Christian friends, and so on.

Sandra:

So you think you know better than Jesus?

Steven:

I honestly think that central Christian doctrines don’t make sense. I believe God has given me the understanding that I have, that God is writing these words through me, and that God is the omnipresent creator, sustainer, and animator of all that exists.

Sandra:

Well then you’re a heathen and you’re going to hell.

Steven:

I hope that’s not true. I would find it strange if God were to subject people to everlasting torment when they have done nothing freely to deserve such torment.

Sandra:

But you’re denying Jesus, therefore you are dead in your sins, and so you do deserve hell.

Steven:

It’s possible that there are other ways of looking at existence, and while I find the teaching of Jesus very compelling, I sometimes wonder whether Christianity might just be part of a bigger picture. I mean, two thousand years of Christian history might seem like a lot, but there are much older religions, and eternity is an incredibly long time and I would suggest than maybe in a few million or billion years God might be playing a different game.

Sandra:

You think this is a game?

Steven:

Only in the sense that I believe God is playfully unfolding all events in existence, and I believe He takes great pleasure in doing so.

Sandra:

The Bible says that God is angry at you because of your sin.

Steven:

Actually, I’m glad you mentioned that, because that gets right to the heart of my problems with Christianity. If we really had free will, then the idea of rebellion against God could potentially make sense. But in reality, I believe everything that happens does so by God’s will, and therefore we don’t freely ‘sin’. Everything that we have ever done has been willed and directed by God, therefore the doctrines of sin, salvation, and judgement, make little sense.

Sandra:

Then we must have free will.

Steven:

I’m convinced that we don’t, for the reasons I’ve stated. Are you freely beating your heart? Are you freely circulating your blood? Are you freely digesting your food? Are you freely creating your emotions? If you are freely doing all of these things, how are you doing them?

Sandra:

My brain controls my bodily processes.

Steven:

What is causing your brain to control your bodily processes?

Sandra:

My subconscious, I guess.

Steven:

What exactly is your subconscious?

Sandra:

It’s the things my brain is doing that I’m not aware of.

Steven:

What is causing your brain to do those things?

Sandra:

My brain just does them, I suppose.

Steven:

Your brain ‘just does them’?

Sandra:

Hmmm. Well, I suppose there must be some cause of my brain activity.

Steven:

Yes, there must. The way I see it is that it is a scientific myth that human experience and human consciousness are somehow the result of brain machines. It’s obvious to me that God is animating all of the processes that we experience as part of our living state. This all ties into my arguments against free will. I wrote an article entitled “What is Causing Our Thoughts?” in which I explained that the idea that our thoughts are under the control of some kind of brain machine is absurd. I believe the truth is that our thoughts are brought about spontaneously by an animating force, which is God.

Sandra:

Now you’re describing us as puppets, and I can’t accept that.

Steven:

Puppetry is a very good analogy for what I believe is the truth. Why can’t you accept it?

Sandra:

I’m not a robot!

Steven:

You’re the one who was suggesting you are a kind of robot powered by your brain. I don’t think we are robots at all, but we are certainly like puppets.

Sandra:

Okay, I need a break. But I’m not giving up on Jesus.

Steven:

As you wish. I respect your desire to follow Jesus, and I understand it very well. But out of curiosity, are you able to understand my arguments, and do you think they are valid?