Define "nice"

So, what with it being Christmas, considered a religious holiday once upon a time, it seems to be apropos to discuss religion a bit.  And lo, what greater gift hath teh Internets rendered than this brief post, which I came upon via Andrew.  I have some trouble with this:

What always fascinates me about [arguments for inter-religious dialogue and tolerance] is that, in their focus on how proponents of different religions can get along, they invariably forget to raise the issue that for most religious believers is the central one: truth. If “intolerance” of other religions means denying that they are equally valid means of accessing the divine, that’s only a bad thing if all religions are equally valid means of accessing the divine — but that is just the point at issue. The constant and never-questioned assumption of people like Jenkins is that, if there is a God, that God will be tolerant and open-minded and accepting of a great variety of ways of trying to get to Him or Her or It. But as far as I can tell, the only reason for believing in so all-embracing a God is that we’d prefer to. Looking around at the world — the natural world as well as the human world — I do see some reasons (none of them definitive, of course) for believing in a God, but I don't see much warrant for believing in a God who is nice.
So many quibbles, so little time.

First off, I don't know Philip Jenkins, and so I can't speak for his religious beliefs.  However, assuming that Alan Jacobs would lump me in with him as the sort of person that supports inter-religious dialogue and considers the belief in exclusive salvation poisonous and ignorant, allow me to clarify that the "assumption" that God is tolerant and "open-minded" is not something that I never questioned.  I was raised in a very conservative church that wasn't too sure about the salvation of Christians that belonged to other denominations, to say nothing about non-Christians.  I came to reject that belief through a lengthy process of spiritual and intellectual questioning.  It doesn't hurt that I can quite easily name several Jews, Muslims and Hindus that I truly love like brothers and sisters, and reject outright the worship of a God that would condemn them to hell for not believing in the "right" manner; "heaven" without their company would be no such thing, regardless.

Secondly, perhaps we should turn away from hackneyed words like "tolerance" and "open-mindedness" and substitute in words like "mercy."  Christians believe (or purport to) in a merciful God (it's there in Matthew... I checked).  Now, perhaps I am atypical with regard to Christianity as a whole, but it strikes me as something rather less than merciful to condemn anyone to an eternity of material torment, period.  Rather, would not a merciful God contrive to receive as many souls as possible?  Is this not consistent with the loving and merciful God common to most world religions?  Or am I not meant to take words like "God is love" seriously?

Finally, I'm not quite sure why Jacobs thinks his particular interpretation of the world is dispositive of anything.  He may find evidence of the existence of God in the natural world and human society, but I am quite certain that a great many people do not.  I have no idea what he believes about God, but as he quotes Chesterton in another post, let's assume he's Catholic.  Perhaps the natural world leads one to believe in God (from my perspective it does), but I am hard pressed to see how a call to such evidence leads to one particular religion or another.  People choose their religions based on a variety of other factors, including (but not limited to) their upbringing and their reason.  The natural and human worlds may yield no "evidence" that God is "nice" (a glib word choice if ever I saw one), but neither do they yield evidence for a God that parted the Red Sea, fed the 5,000 or sported with milkmaids.  That they do not has little or no bearing on the beliefs of Jews, Christians or Hindus, and has no bearing on my belief that God expects us to live in harmony and look past our religious divisions.  Jacobs may play that his beliefs are informed by evidence from the world at large, but really they are as much a product of his preference as are anyone else's.


  1. I don't disagree with you, but one point here is that many religions do take it as a tenet of faith that they are correct and that other religions are wrong. for representatives of those religions to go around chumming it up with other religions and saying "hey it's all the same god, there are just different paths to his door" is like, you know, eating pork or wearing mixed fabrics: one of those rules we no longer obey because it's inconvenient.

    for me, this just reinforces how ridiculous most of the declarations of religion are, but I suppose others might see it as a sign of hypocrisy and lack of real commitment to god.

  2. Optic, I think that the religious folk that are most convinced that their religion is the only way to God are the least likely to promote tolerance or "open-mindedness."

  3. true, but I'm not sure what to make of a professed Christian who goes around saying "hey it's all the same god". I'm fairly sure his holy book says pretty much the opposite of that. so I admire his tolerance but he's basically picking and choosing which parts of the "word of God" he wants to obey (which is fine, everyone does that anyway, but it's fairly hypocritical).