Finnish discussion about God and religion

Just finished a book, Nurkkaan ajettu Jumala? (doesn’t translate well; “[Is] God driven to a corner?”), a 2003 exchange of letters on science and faith between Juha Pihkala, then a bishop of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church (the “gently eunuchoid” church as I’ve called it), and Esko Valtaoja, an agnostic professor of astronomy and one of my heroes.

Can’t say I found the bishop’s arguments persuasive; I have to say they seemed more like evasions and sophistry, arguing for some kind of a Christianity and some kind of a God, busily retreating ever further behind a smokescreen of quotations and word games. Either I am a moron, which is a possibility, or then it really is frustrating how the more liberal believers (such as Pihkala, now retired) have such nice, sensible opinions, but descend into such byzantine verbiage of indecision when trying to explain what and how they exactly believe.

I think the biggest argument for God that Pihkala, a modern, science-accepting man, came up with was that people in all cultures have these similar feelings of something or someone out there, and deep unity with the cosmos and the like; which is pretty weak. (Isn’t this more a result of our shared, imperfect mammalian ancestry, as Valtaoja repeatedly reminded, than of some outside Thing beyond our different cultural traditions?)

(Then again, good that that was what he said. For some reason I’ve been seeing the traditional logical arguments for God, the cosmological, ontological, transcendental and the like, as more and more something like the playground word games where the unwary target ends up admitting his non-heterosexual preference, and the loose sexual morality of his female progenitor.)

Valtaoja was much better, and for all his protests of not being a “combative atheist” and not being out to rouse any rabbles was quite merciless about why religion seems like a Bad Idea to him: a foundation for abominable lack of doubt, and an equally willing source for many and any hubristic interpretations and mistakes. (That’s my pomposity, not his.) It is always a pleasure to read someone who you 98% agree with. (A potential danger, too, if you read only that; but I’m not really enthusiastic about the religious side having anything important to offer; that’s one of the small details where Valtaoja and I seem to differ. I only got through a recent Hitchens-Dembski debate by calling up some fetish pornography in a parallel window and running it with equal volume whenever Dembski’s turn to speak came. Turns out that distracts one enough to tolerate and analyse the inanity. Not that I’m stupid enough to call a moderate, sensible, nice bishop of the Finnish Ev-Lut Church the same as an Intelligent Design asshat like Dembski.)

Valtaoja defined himself as an agnostic, which was funny in a way. When he explained what he meant by “agnostic”, the result was more or less this: he is not an atheist because he does not claim to know there is no God; he just doesn’t think there is, and acts accordingly. That’s fine, and more or less the same way that Richard Dawkins defines his opinion, which Richard calls atheism: it is agnosticism in the philosophical sense, but for the sake of not misleading it ought to be called atheism, because the admitted possibility of being wrong seems to hover on the same level as being wrong about heliocentrism. Could be; not very damn likely to be. Then again, “misleading” also depends on whether one’s dictionary has “does not believe” or “knows there isn’t” in the definition of atheism.  (Would be a poor scientist that went around saying she or he was absolutely certain about anything, really absolutely knew anything, beyond all doubt. That would be being as bad as the more deluded believers; that would also be something scientists, or the so-called New Atheists, aren’t.)

As I said, I liked Valtaoja’s letters better; and there was one particular paragraph that made me act like a sport fan presumably acts like when his team suddenly scores a jillion points at once (I am not big on sports); namely —

Mitä jos kuoltuani todella joudun vastaamaan sanoistani ja teoistani, kuten epäilemättä moni tämän tekstini lukeva mielessään ajattelee; mitä silloin sanon puolustuksekseni? Sanoit itse, että hedelmistään puu tunnetaan. Ei ole minun vikani, että osoittauduit niin surkeaksi puutarhuriksi.

Which is roughly as follows, after this tangent; Valtaoja’s aside to readers (“if I have to answer for my words, as many of the readers no doubt think”) is because, well, the book came out from Kirjapaja (“book smithy”), a small publisher of mostly religious stuff, and I think most of the readers of any religion-science fracas in Finland tend to be mostly from the former camp, the rest of us having already moved on from that, and from religion.

(Indeed, Valtaoja mentions at one point that he doesn’t really know any Christians — though his circle of friends and acquaintances no doubt contains some, he hasn’t ever discussed religion with any of them; the subject has never come up; and not one has, even in a subclause, spoken out about any faith, or made any visible gesture indicating it. Which is the same experience I’ve had; even when I was involved in parish youth work for a few years, before the millennium, the youth worker, and to a lesser extent the priest, was the only one that ever professed any non-ritual, non-social faith; not one of us younger camp helpers did, and much less the young ones. Our involvement was entirely social: a pittance of money, some summer work that felt like a “good thing”, the sweet intoxicating power of well actually no power at all, the acting of silly sketches and outrageous evening entertainments*, and the joy of working with nice people to entertain, to make the underclassmen sit down and refrain from smoking for a week, to tell them to learn to say out loud this Bible bit; but I think we would have been shocked if we had been asked if we believed. Not that I didn’t, in a nebulous way (and I have no idea at all about the others!), but the question would have been a big social no-no, and not a particularly important one, even in those circles. Just say the meal prayer, make do with the social bonding and go on with the camp helper and entertainer stuff; what you personally believe is your business and your alone, and not a big deal as long as we all get along.**)

(Come to think of it, “camp helper” probably isn’t the most fair or felicitous way to describe an isonen, a confirmation camp tutor and gofer, recalling as it does both camp followers and concentration-camp guards. Or maybe that is just me.)

But, my poor translation of what Valtaoja said, and what made me cheer and jump up and down like a drunken sports-fan —

What if after I die I really have to answer for my words and deeds, as no doubt many of the readers of this text think to themselves — what will I say in my defense? You yourself said that by their fruits shall you know them; it’s no fault of mine that you are such a worthless gardener.

If you know Finnish, the book is worth the price for Valtaoja’s contribution alone, and is not made worse by Pihkala’s portion, though I did not much care for it; and if you don’t know Finnish get the book anyway; you can put it on your shelf and say it contains whatever a book with a bishopy, cassocky fellow and a wild-bearded smirking guy on its cover can ever be said to contain. (“Oh, that? A definitive exegesis on the beard of Jesus, and a refutation of the heresy of the Whiskerites.”)

(image from the Kirjapaja page)

(I can’t even say how I want to make
a lolcatty captioned version of this;
possibly “SERIOUS BISHOP IS SERIOUS”
for Pihkala, and “SCIENCE BEARD FTW”
for Valtaoja. What does this tell of me?)

* * *

*, “outrageous entertainments” : The first tutor says, “And now, presenting, illan vetonaula!” — which means figuratively “the leading star of the evening”, or literally “the dragged nail of the evening”. Then me, a string in hand, and the biggest nail the camp had dragged after me on the other end of it.

**, “get along” : Well, once, when I was attending the confirmation camp as a confirmee, I didn’t get along. There was a possibility of anonymously submitting religious questions to the priest, which he would then answer publicly. With twenty of us young ones, there were less than ten questions, which I’ve entirely forgotten; I think half of them were by me, inquiring in a detachedly curious speculative way about insignificant little details. One inquiry was about the abominable Psalm 137, “By the rivers of Babylon”, which I had found in the Bible by myself, and which seemed like a shitty thing to say, dashing your enemy’s babies against rocks; but that wasn’t a big deal to either me or the priest; I’ve forgotten the answer he gave. The inquiry that did not end well was asking if, had Jesus lived in our time, we would carry images of electric chairs round our necks. The priest did not take this question well, and became flustered and offended in a way I did not expect, and did not understand. Then again, it was after that that I became this summertime camp helper for a few years. There were no lasting ill feelings on either side, and I assume he knew by the abominable handwriting it was me, and soon realized it had been rude curiosity, not malice.

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