What He Taught

I was having lunch with a Jewish friend of mine the other day, a man whose personal integrity and ethics I highly respect. We argue all the time. He asked a question that threw into sharp relief what my faith often looks like from the outside. As best I can reproduce it, the conversation went like this. “I have never understood why you [Christians] make the cross the center of your faith.” I replied, “And what should we make the center of our faith?” Without hesitation, he answered, “What Jesus taught while he was alive.” He went on to contrast this Christian attitude that he perceived toward the moment of Christ’s death with his observation that in the Jewish tradition it is actions, and only actions, that matter as far as a person’s righteousness is concerned.

I do not know if my friend realized that I had heard this before, from non-Christians, prominently atheists, who will very often say that Jesus was a good man, whose teachings should be followed. This is always followed up by the observation that Christians in particular do a very poor job of following His commandments.

I would like to start my response to this by admitting that I believe one of the greatest failures of the Church, both as an institution and as a fellowship — more, as a matter of my own personal conduct — is our failure to follow Christ as he taught us to live. I am not going to waste time with excuses, but speak plainly: In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Church visibly choked on its own success. Its cultural dominance tempted it quite successfully to condemn unpopular sins and refuse to forgive such sinners, while at the same time ignoring unpopular sins and concealing them, or what was worse: preaching that they were no sin at all. The Church will therefore have to answer for all those who rejected Christ, not because they were offended by His teachings, but because they were offended by the Church’s refusal to obey them, and with Thomas Jefferson, “I shudder when I think that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.”

However, that historical fact has no bearing on another historical fact, and that is the matter of what Jesus actually did teach. And while Jesus taught us many hard lessons in personal conduct in the parable of the Good Samaritan and the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, his teachings also include the following:

“And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must… be killed and after three days rise again. And He said this plainly.” Mark 8:31-32.

“The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” Mark 9:31.

“And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God.” Luke 12:8-9.

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent His Son not into the world to condemn the world, but that through Him the world might be saved.” John 3:16-17

“Verily, verily I say unto you, before Abraham was, I AM,” John 8:58

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6.

The problem that Christians have is that we focus, perhaps, too much on the identity of Christ, and we forget that surrounding His identity, and pointing us toward Him are all Jesus’ commandments to us. We want a relationship with Jesus the man, and with Jesus the God, but we wish to ignore the commands of Jesus the Lord, with the authority to demand we change our behavior.

Non-Christians who criticize Christians for this, on the other hand, have both the opposite and the same problem. They acknowledge the authority of Christ when he preaches commandments to do righteousness, but they ignore that alongside those teachings, and intimately bound up in them are the commands to follow him and trust in His sacrifice. They ignore that the commands to change our behavior all come from and point to Christ’s mission to save humanity by His death and resurrection. And of course, as C. S. Lewis was famous for pointing out, either Christ is who He said He was, and we must all follow all of what he said, or he is a lunatic, on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg, and we need not trouble ourselves about any of what He said. And on a personal level, while I am aware of many other men who claimed identity with God, I know of no other who has gone on to be a great moral teacher. On the contrary, they were eccentric at best, and most often genuine monsters.

Jesus always knew that Christians would do badly in following him, and complained about it to His disciples: “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not follow my teachings?” The question to non-Christians would perhaps be better phrased, “Why do you insist my disciples follow my teachings when you deny the ones you don’t like?”
If there is anything that the two groups have in common, it is that the Gospel of Half of Christ is very attractive to them: Christians want to get to the center without troubling themselves about the commands that surround it. Non-Christians want to stay at the edge and ignore the teachings at the center. Both are wrong.

If the New Testament documents are worthy of any respect, then the same man who said “whatsoever you do unto the least of these, you do also to me” also said “I am the resurrection and the life.” The problem with both Christians and non-Christian admirers of Jesus is that both of them want only a part of what Jesus taught, but Jesus himself demands a wholehearted following. And since none of us is capable of such a wholehearted following, the true Gospel of Christ is this: that the Father stands ready to welcome the Prodigal Son because He loves him. That the Son poured out His life for His weaker brothers and sisters that they, too, may stand in the Father’s embrace. But to turn away from the Son is to turn away from the Father, and walk away from the embrace. And this a Christian cannot do. We must indeed, as my friend said, follow what Jesus taught. But following it leads us, step by step, to the Cross.

 

 

A Report on the Curious Culture and Religion of the Acirema

As we approach the anniversary of a certain election, I have chosen another column to reprint.

A Report on the Curious Culture and Religion of the Acirema

by

An Alien Visitor

As told to

G. Scott Huggins

Dear Sirs, Mesdames, Glooquot[1],and  Mechaniqa[2]:

I submit herewith my xenological report on the most curious culture to inhabit planet 73SXB1089, called in the major local language, Dirt. The most powerful economic and military culture on the planet is that of the Acirema, who have evolved a religio-political system that I believe to be unprecedented in the known galaxy.

The institution of the God-King is, of course, well documented and known to us all, the hallmark of a thousand primitive cultures. What sets the Acirema apart is their particular variant upon this theme: in their common religion, the central ceremony is the election, every four years, of a God-President. This is a very complicated process, and affects every aspect of Acirema life. The Acirema religion is atypical in many ways, the chief being: 1) The religion has aspects of both monism and dualism. 2) The religion relies on both faith and magic. 3) They deny that they share the same religion. 4) They deny that it is a religion at all.

Overview:

The Acirema overwhelmingly belong to one of two sects. They have many names among themselves, and among each other, both self-glorifying (for their own sect) and pejorative (for the other). However, the two names that seem to be most in use are the Tarcomed and the Pog. The two sects claim to be as different from one another as possible, but for at least the past few decades their actions have grown more and more indistinguishable, to the point that only experts can tell them apart. The two sects themselves, however, vehemently deny this, so it is instructive to look at the major similarities.

Dualism:

Both sides, every four Dirt years, throw all of the efforts of their disciples into electing the next God-President, which is always one of two Chosen Prophets, one from each sect. Yet both sides have agreed that no God-President shall be elected more than twice, regardless of how well he performs the office. It is an article of faith that this would lead to corruption, as if eight years were not long enough a time to be corrupted. The disciples preach to the masses, who are at least nominal followers of the sects themselves, in order to encourage them to participate in the voting ceremony. The devotion of the masses does lie in some doubt, as it has been many years, if ever, that even half have participated in the actual ceremony. Yet even those who decline to participate in the ceremony itself (which is surprisingly prosaic and unmystical, being simply a matter of counting votes and then multiplying them by a formula based on place of habitation) devote quite a bit of time to watching and listening to the disciples, and chanting formulas in support or dissent of the two sects’ Chosen Prophets. Each side is certain that only their Chosen Prophet, as God-President, can save Acirema from poverty, war, corruption, and tyranny, while the election of the other Chosen Prophet will bring about all these things. So in this sense, the religion is dualistic, with the true believers of each sect certain that the other’s Chosen Prophet will be a God-President of Evil and Darkness.

Monism:

However, once in office, the current God-President is praised (by the disciples of his own sect) for all good things that may happen within the realm of Acirema, while he is universally reviled (by the disciples of the other sect) for all possible bad things. Even those who claim to follow neither sect generally attribute the good or the bad to the decisions and the character of the God-President, whoever he may be. In this sense, therefore, the religion of the Acirema is monistic, as everything that takes place is an aspect of his rule. The chief priests, who go about instilling this belief in the worshippers, are called the “media,” not because they mediate between the people and their God-President, but because they are the only mediators of His decisions and statements to them.

Faith and Magic:

It would be natural to assume that the Acirema might fear and revere their God-President’s power simply because it is vast and unlimited like that of any tyrant, but a short review of their Law (which is indeed fairly well-enforced, though not commonly well-understood or thoroughly read) reveals that this is not so, and that the power attributed to him is entirely based on superstition and faith. The best example of such faith is the miraculous control that they attribute to the God-President over the economy. Yet a cursory review of their Law will show that the God-President has very little power over their sprawling economy, not even the power to make laws. That power is vested in a temple which, every two years they fill with what appears to be a college of wizards (also divided into Tarcomed and Pog sects), who try to influence the economy by what I can only describe as legislemancy: a series of written spells designed to make those who have elected them richer, and those who support their opponents poorer. The spells are so arcane that even many of the wizards no longer know their contents, let alone their eventual consequences. The practice does have this advantage for them, however: since no consequence of the legislemancy can ever be known for sure, there is no effect that cannot be successfully claimed as a triumph for one sect or the other. It is therefore understandable (and one of the last remaining signs of sanity in Acirema culture) that the people’s distrust of these wizards is such that the Acirema have given their temple a name that can mean both the opposite of progress and indiscriminate sexual intercourse (proving that for all their other faults, the Acirema are skilled wordsmiths and ironists). In recent years, the sectarian wizardry has grown more and more oppositional, and the result, of course is that very little gets accomplished. This seems to have been designed into the system by the authors of the Law, who were quite obviously wiser than the current Acirema. This congress, as they call it, however, serves only to reinforce their faith in the power of the God-President.

Identity of Practice:

Both sects have therefore given to the God-President more and more power, seemingly unaware of the fact that the power they give to the God-President that they support carries over to the one they oppose. Both sects encourage their God-President to fight the other sect to the uttermost, both beseech him to wield the full force of the Law without mercy over the other sect, and both call upon him to see that he extends the force of the Law and his powers of government so that more and more of their money will be taken and spent by the government.  So in this way, we may see that the religion they practice is truly the same.

Denial of Faith:

One must be careful, however, when traveling among them, never to refer to their religion as such, for both sects will violently deny that it is a religion at all. While much variance on the matter exists within each sect, the Tarcomed are most likely to deny that such a thing as God exists, which may account for their devotion to (or hatred for) the current God-President, as they have no other deity in which to repose their trust. However, even more curious are the Pog, who generally profess to worship another, and far older god. A review of the local literature revealed that this alleged god supposedly came to Earth as a man, and preached love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, all of which are markedly absent from Acirema religious debate, aside from the fact that both sects do claim to possess these qualities, while believing their opponents lack them entirely. However, as neither the Pog nor the Tarcomed spend even a quarter of the time discussing or practicing the tenets of this minor “religion” as they do their major one, we may safely discount this quaint folkway as having any real effect upon their actions or beliefs.

Conclusion:

The Acirema are, for now, in a very strange and possibly dangerous religious phase of their culture. There is some evidence that in the past, a saner approach to politics, and we may assume, religion, took place, in which the Acirema recognized that policies rather than superstition and sectarian purity were more likely to affect their economic and diplomatic fortunes, but few, if any of that generation survive today, and since age is not well-respected among the Acirema, any testimony from them can be dismissed as “reactionary” and “out-of-touch.” We may only hope that their children may be as much wiser than the current Acirema as their ancestors were, and hope for more fruitful contact at a later time.

[1] Untranslatable gender

[2] Intelligent machines

His Kingdom Endures Forever

Another column I wrote about a year ago. It is always easier to argue against a part of an idea than it is to argue against all of it.

There is a popular and growing disdain for the concept of an afterlife today. Among agnostics and atheists, it is seen as pure wishful thinking, lampooned as “pie in the sky when you die,” a nostrum intended to keep the poor and the ignorant enslaved to the will of the religious elite. That this phrase was popularized by a communist who intended to harness the poor and ignorant to his revolution is either forgotten, or else embraced as “liberating,” as though dying for a secular cause you’ll never experience is somehow more meaningful and less absurd than dying for a religious one you would.

In the postmodern age, we see that even among some Christians, a desire for an afterlife is seen as somehow dishonorable and mercenary. As though somehow it is “pay” for “being good,” which truly virtuous people would do without reward. Thus, it is argued, Christians (or anyone) who believe in an afterlife are really just admitting their own moral failings. I must admit that, as a Christian, this argument fails to move me, seeing that the whole basis for faith in Christ is a recognition that everyone fails at morality.

I find it an interesting paradox, therefore, that in so many fantasy works that explicitly address the question of what it means to be good, the idea of an afterlife inevitably occurs. If it does not at the beginning, then it does at the end. Almost as if it were a secret that cannot help but come out whenever we discuss what it means to do right at the cost of our own lives.

Of course, the classic threat that is leveled at our SFF heroes is always “submit, or die.”  Lois McMaster Bujold, in her Chalion cycle, begins The Curse of Chalion with the tale of Lupe dy Cazaril, a Chalionese nobleman recently freed from the slavery into which he was betrayed. Although Cazaril at first dares death to save his young pupil, a Chalionese girl threatened with a forced marriage, he finds himself quickly caught up in a the service of gods who ask him to die not once, but three times to save Chalion from a curse brought about by the desperate pride of two men long dead. Cazaril does this at the risk, not only of his death, but of his damnation. And damnation becomes a theme throughout this cycle of Bujold’s work, just as reunion with the gods does. The entire second work, A Paladin of Souls turns on saving the soul of a damned ghost. To do this, Dowager Queen Ista must walk into danger only on the word of her patron god.

If Cazaril is not especially religious at the beginning of his tale, Frodo the Hobbit and Harry Potter the wizard are even less so. Both characters face, however, the growing power of a malevolent force that wishes to dominate their worlds. While the characters are extremely different, Frodo being completely unknown in his world before encountering the One Ring, while Harry is a prophesied hero practically at his birth, they have this similarity: both are forced to choose whether they will accept the role of opposing a deadly foe at the cost of their own lives. And the reward for both of them, revealed at the end of the last volume, is Heaven. The fact that Harry chooses to turn his back on Heaven (and the penalty for Voldemort’s determination to live forever at the expense of others is, make no mistake, a form of Hell) is irrelevant. He has seen Heaven, and can be confident he will find his way back.

I would contend that these authors have seen clearly a necessary truth: that the belief in an objective moral code that can demand our lives in its service cannot be separated from the belief in an afterlife. The alternative to this is not moral rectitude, but a dreadful moral injustice, in which the good are enslaved to the evil. It makes God (or whatever the source of the moral code is) into a moral vampire, demanding the hard road of virtue while returning nothing.

A comparison may be useful here. In Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials saga, the only afterlife is Hell, which is maintained by an evil God (“The Authority”) who has pulled the wool over the eyes of the universe. Essentially, this “God” is the imagined God of Satan in Paradise Lost:[1]not a Creator, but simply an immensely powerful being who opportunistically identified itself as “God” to all who came after. Hell is maintained for no other reason than Divine sadism, and by the time of the novel, the angel Metatron is trying to take over the position of “God” from the senile and dying deity, maintaining the monstrous tyranny of Heaven. The protagonists are humans who lead a revolution against these evil god-kings.

I find it fascinating where Pullman went in setting this up. When, in the first volume, The Golden Compass, we meet the parents of the main protagonist, a girl named Lyra, her parents (whom she does not know, as they have more important things to do than raise a child) are engaged in experiments to understand the nature of the universe, which they can only do, it seems, by cutting out the souls of children. This they do without qualm.

By The Amber Spyglass, we are asked to believe that these same people who would torture and kill children to attain their ends are sacrificing themselves heroically in combat to overthrow the evil Metatron. I suppose we ought to congratulate Pullman on his honesty: at least his anti-theistic messiah figures were honest enough to start out by killing children. Most of the ones in the real world are too cowardly to show their willingness to do this until they have already attained power.

At the end of the novel, Lyra breathlessly declares her intention to begin building “the Republic of Heaven,” to replace the shattered kingdom. But this Republic of Heaven will have no permanent inhabitants, it having been revealed that infinite existence was only possible, for some reason, in Hell. Lyra’s “heaven” is temporary, powerless, and cannot even contain the boy she has grown to love.

Pullman’s point, in the end, seems to be that his humans are free because they have discovered the truth: that Christianity is a lie. Well and good, I suppose, but the truth revealed is a terribly depressing one: that humans are free only to die. It truly is a Satanic conclusion: that it is better to reign and die than to serve in Heaven. He makes no argument as to why this is superior, he simply establishes on his own Author-ity that this is the case.

I would argue that we find it difficult to separate the idea of Heaven from the idea of a transcendent moral code because the two are fundamentally indissoluble, as Tolkien, Rowling, and Bujold instinctively grasp. They are repelled from separating the two for much the same reason that Pullman is attracted to destroying both: because they believe that an objective and powerful moral code is essential to human freedom, while Pullman believes that such a code destroys it. Each author has built a world on his on this foundation, and the consequences for the human condition are plain. Which world we would choose to inhabit is, as always, a choice for the reader. I believe Pullman would argue that the overwhelming advantage of living in his world is that it most closely resembles the real one. To that, I can only reply, along with C.S. Lewis’s Puddleglum, “in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing when you come to think of it.”

[1] “That we were formd then saist thou? and the work
Of secondarie hands, by task transferd
From Father to his Son? strange point and new!
Doctrin which we would know whence learnt: who saw
When this creation was? rememberst thou
Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-rais’d
By our own quick’ning power…”

The Temptation of Samuel Vimes

For this week’s Monday post, another column that I did for Sci Phi Journal last year. Terry Pratchett was perhaps the most amazing writer I have ever read, who faced his own limitations and did not deny them. This column represents one of the lessons I learned from his writing.

Like so many of us, I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Sir Terry Pratchett earlier this year. Not so sad as I had been to learn that he suffered from the variant of Alzheimer’s disease that led to his death in the first place. What can I say of him? He was possibly the greatest fantasy author of my lifetime. He had the rare gift of being able to shift from writing comic farce to deep philosophy in the space of a paragraph. His works contained allusions to great literature, music, science, and the Bible.

If you have not read Pratchett’s Guards! Guards! then put this column down, get a copy and read it. I’ll wait. In fact, if you have read it, go read it again. You’re welcome.

At the very end of the book, after the dragon terrorizing the city has been defeated, Lord Vetinari, Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, takes Captain Vimes of the City Watch up on the pinnacle of the palace[1] and offers him the world.[2] The reason Vimes struggles with depression over the state of the city is because, Vetinari says, Vimes thinks of the world as divided into good people and bad people. But in reality, “there are always and only the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides.” The human race is a “rolling sea of evil,” and the only difference is the depth.

“Down there… are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any iniquity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. No the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin, you might say, without a trace of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they do not say no.”

The parallels with C.S. Lewis’s demon, Screwtape, complaining about his “lukewarm Casserole of Adulterers” in Hell are inescapable: “Could you find in it any trace of a fully inflamed, defiant, rebellious, insatiable lust? I couldn’t. They all tasted to me like undersexed morons who had blundered or trickled into the wrong beds in automatic response to sexy advertisements, or to make themselves feel modern or emancipated, or to reassure themselves about their virility or their ‘normalcy,’ or even because they had nothing else to do.” Like the citizens of Ankh-Morpork, they dared not say no.

Of course, even in Pratchett’s world, there are those who will stand up to the dragons. There are those with good intentions, like Vimes’s second-in-command Sgt. Colon, who try to rally the people to oppose the dragon’s order to sacrifice virgins to it by using the tactics of peaceful protest:

“It can’t burn everybody,” said Colon.”
“I’m not exactly sure I understand why not,” replies a nameless citizen. “Why can’t it burn everyone and fly off to another city?”

Pratchett realizes the truth; that there are some enemies who will not be moved by moral gestures, no matter how noble. Nevertheless, as Colon’s protestors (including Colon himself) drain away before the appearance of the dragon, one man, even in Ankh-Morpork, dares to place his life between his loved ones and the desolation of dragonfire. What happens to him is predictable, and bleak.

We are not even told his name. At the core of the scene, brilliant in its mockery of the limits to nonviolent protest, is a man whose self-sacrifice for his daughters and his fellow citizens is swallowed up in oblivion, without a further thought.

This reinforces Vetinari’s gentle pity of Vimes, the man who “put[s] together “little rafts of rules and vaguely good intentions and say this is the opposite, this will triumph in the end.” Obviously, it doesn’t triumph. It is not so much that “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” as the saying goes. It is that evil will triumph despite all that good men can do, because those good men are drowning in the sea of evil apathy that is the human race.

Against this, Vimes does not budge: “‘It’s just because people are afraid and alone…’  He paused. It sounded pretty hollow even to him… ‘They’re just people. They’re just doing what people do, sir.’” Vetinari replies, “You have to believe that, I appreciate… Otherwise existence would be a dark agony and the only hope would be that there is no life after death.”

Both Vetinari and Vimes miss the point, here. Vimes uses people’s loneliness and fear as an excuse for people’s behavior, and Vetinari tacitly accepts that this would be an excuse. In other words, that people “doing what people do” are people relieved to stay alive at the cost of everyone else they know. In Good Omens, Pratchett (with Neil Gaiman) says it another way: Adam, their protagonist, says to the Angel Metatron, “I don’t see what’s so triffic <sic> about creating people as people and then gettin’ upset ‘cos they act like people.”

Of course, this explanation flies in the face of pretty much all monotheistic theology, including Judaism and Islam, which state explicitly that people were not created as this sort of people. If the crux of any criticism depends on a straw man of the opposition, then surely we can agree it is a bad criticism. It is vital that we understand this, because the situation is in no way fictional. A horrifying factual example of people being people in this way can be found in Corrie ten Boom’s memoir of the Holocaust, The Hiding Place, when she pleads with a Dutch pastor to hide a Jewish mother and her baby:

“No. Definitely not. We could lose our lives for that Jewish child!”

Corrie’s father responds: “You say we could lose our lives for this child. I would consider that the greatest honor that could come to my family.”

If people being people results in the actions of the Dutch pastor, then I submit that being people is itself evil. What, after all, do we think of a man who is good only because he is safe and warm and fed and knows he will be tomorrow? Is that our idea of a moral person? Those who deign to do good when all is well with them? Whole schools of politics, of course, Marxism as well as fascism, are based on the idea that this is so. That essentially, we cannot expect people to be virtuous and kind until they are no longer poor; that the poor and oppressed (and their “allies”) may essentially threaten to terrorize the cosmos if it does not suit their ideas of equality and justice, and call it morality.

Though his statement sounds “hollow even to him,” Vimes does challenge Vetinari’s temptation to despair: “Do you believe all that, sir? About the endless evil and the sheer blackness?”

Vetinari: “It is the only logical conclusion.”

Vimes: “But you get out of bed every morning, sir?”

Vetinari: “Yes? What is your point?”

Vetinari:  “Oh, do go away, Vimes, there’s a good fellow.”

Vimes, battered little almost-Christ, sees the truth, though he has no answer for it either: that Vetinari’s view, true or not, cannot sustain life. And to this, Vetinari has no answer. He goes on ruling, goes on striving, an evil captain of a Flying Dutchman, sinking in a sea of evil.

Terry Pratchett expresses the problem of good and evil as clearly as any writer I have ever read. But he does not have an answer to it. He has only the temptation to despair. Against this, Vimes endures, but only with stubbornness; not with hope. The choice is between theology and despair, and I know of no third way. That I leave as an exercise for the reader.

[1] Okay, the view from his office window. Nothing’s very high in Ankh-Morpork.

[2] In the sense of showing it to him. Not in the sense of giving it to him. This is Vetinari, after all.