Imaginary Sharks

Posted on 2011/07/16


Feature Image - Imaginary Sharks

The Setup

While sitting down for lunch a few weeks ago, a Christian colleague and I slowly established our inevitable, yet unscheduled, weekly argument about faith. This normally makes for rather trite lunchtime conversation, as the neighboring diners would agree.  His arguments for faith were often the same, and my replies were equally repetitive.  This is always the trouble when both sides are pretty sure, if not certain, they are correct.

But, as Christopher Hitchens is fond of saying, what makes debating with Christians worthwhile is that you never quite know what they are going to say next.  You may think you do, as they lure you into a false sense of banality, but all of a sudden, a entirely new absurdity emerges.  It keeps a person alert.

The new piece of information was that his beliefs include the concept of special salvation.  This means he thinks that the only qualification for eternal salvation, other than of course being dead, is that you hold a certain set of Christian statements to be true.  Notice I said that this is the only qualification.

‘So,’ I say to him, ‘a mass murderer who, the moment before he dies, holds these beliefs.  Does he go to heaven?’

‘Yes,’ he says.

‘And a Hindu philanthropist who has never heard of Jesus?’

‘Will go to hell?  Yes.’

Without even a suggestion that he finds this problematic.   To him, the history of all your previous human interactions are morally irrelevant.  Everything you’ve ever done, whether that include murder, rape or torture: inconsequential.  Or, to emphasize the corollary, if you live a good life, yet have simply never heard of Jesus, you go to Hell.

In this conception of morality, eternal punishment is distributed solely my means of thought analysis, where ignorance or skepticism on these matters are the thought crimes.

To get an idea of exactly what he, and Christians like him, thinks you need to believe, The Book of Common Prayer is uncharacteristically terse in its translation of Apostles’ Creed.

I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth:
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried:
He descended into hell;
The third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

But is it just his version of Christianity that thinks this is a requirement for salvation?  Another creed, the Athanasian Creed, accepted by almost all Christian denominations, contains a slight variation.  Below I include the English translation of lines 41 to 44.  Lines 29 to 40 are a repetition of the above, if not more verbose.  I omit the first 28 lines as they are purely concerned with the nature of The Trinity and I have always thought this a futile exercise in trying to prove that 3=1.

The remainder reads as follows:

At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies; And shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire. This is the Catholic Faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved.

The penultimate line, ‘they that have done good shall go into life everlasting,’ at least acknowledges moral actions are possible and cites them as a requirement for salvation.  Yet, the final statement trumps all this by insisting that, in addition, you also need to believe the previous 43 lines.  So, a slight improvement insofar as a Christian mass murder does not go to Heaven, yet is joined by our Hindu philanthropist who still goes to Hell.

Thus, the concept of a ‘moral action’ is a nonsense in Christianity.  Or, to turn that previous sentence around, Christianity makes a nonsense of common-sense morality.

The Parable of the Sharks

After this exchange, I became much less affable.  I even suggested we never talk about his faith again, which, if you know me, is a rare promise.  Yet, with a smile on his face, he insisted he desired to continue the dialogue and tried to explain himself by means of an analogy.  It was another moment for surprise because I had not heard it before.  But, once I had grasped it, I rather thanked him for the opportunity to deliver my reply.  He said:

‘The way I see it, I’m standing on the shore while you are swimming in shark infested water.  Who wouldn’t want to help a friend and try to persuade them to swim to shore?”

And my reply:

“While I thank you for your concern, the way I see it is that there are no sharks.  They are imaginary sharks.  Or at the very least, sharks that are unknowable.  I would encourage you to stop worrying about the sharks.  Swim around and have fun.”

I would like to say that I said the following things as well, but these were added to my thoughts a few hours later:

“If you mention these sharks again, I don’t think I can promise to be polite about it.  Especially if you continue to teach children to live in fear of sharks.  Do you know there are some people, swimming on the other side of the ocean, who have never even heard of sharks, and certainly cannot see them?  But for you this doesn’t matter, you think they get eaten all the same.  But we, in the ocean, know that it is not whether you are in the water or on land that matters, but what you do.

Do you see that?  Over there, in the distance, is another island.  You probably can’t see it.  They think you need to stand on their shore to be saved.  From their point of view, you’re swimming too.”

Posted in: Anecdote, Religion