The Word: The God Of Large And Small

Another theology column that I originally wrote for Sci-Phi Journal.

In his short story, “The Theologian’s Nightmare,” (Fact and Fiction 1961) the philosopher, astronomer and atheist Bertrand Russell presents the absurd tale of Dr. Thaddeus, who dreams himself into a Heaven staffed with great alien minds who have never heard of the “parasites” called man, who infest the planets of an ordinary star in a commonplace galaxy. They are mildly amused that one of these parasites suffers the delusion that its race is the acme of creation.

I cannot help admiring Dr. Russell’s intelligence, or his elegant skewering of the ego of humankind. In fact, as a Christian I have to admit that (especially) our overinflated egos have often deserved such skewering. That sentiment is hardly out of place in the Bible. Indeed, one might say it is the entire point of God’s speech in the Book of Job. And yet, as an attempt to show the absurdity of humanity’s desire for a connection with its Creator, I have to wonder at the failure of imagination that posits a God too big to care for Its creation. Humanity as such is simply beneath Its notice. It is like Clarke’s Overmind, which I discussed in my last column. Like Russell’s, Clarke’s evolving god is too big to love (in fact, it is implied that it must be), too big to be grateful. It is a monstrous Beyond Good And Evil that eats its children like Saturn, so that it may be increased and glorified.

But an astronomer and a philosopher of all people should be well aware that size itself is no argument for complexity, let alone wonder. And while it makes perfect sense that the love of a god (let alone the love of God) might be incomprehensibly more than we can ever imagine, and might at times be strikingly – even shockingly – alien in its highest expressions, surely it can never be less. That strikes at the root of all human experience and all logic. Surely, that which is more includes that which is less. It does not exclude it. A baby can understand love only in that it is snuggled and is dry and is fed. It knows nothing of a love poem or heroic deeds in the name of love. It would find them alien and possibly even frightening if it were give them. But as an adult, I can still enjoy being snuggled and being fed, and I can certainly understand how to give these things to my children.

One of my favorite authors, who understands this beautifully, is Lois McMaster Bujold, who is the best since Dan Simmons (and perhaps C.S. Lewis) at conveying a God who is both big enough to create worlds, and small enough to love those who inhabit them. Her land of Chalion and its Five Gods is astonishingly well realized. Through her protagonists, Cazaril and Ista, Bujold draws for us broken and real humans, who abandon their gods, curse their gods, and suffer greatly. And like those of us who choose to follow our God, these men and women are faced with a terrible choice: to keep faith and do what is right when the cost seems disastrous, or to run away and save themselves. Bujold’s gods cannot compel their humans (just as, I would argue, God cannot compel a free choice, but that is beyond the scope of this piece) and the cost of that free will hurts Ista terribly. In Paladin of Souls, brought face-to-face with the god called the Bastard she cries: “Where were the gods the night Teidez [her son] died?” He answers:
“The Son of Autumn dispatched many men in answer to your prayers, sweet Ista. They turned aside upon their roads, and did not arrive. For He could not bend their wills, nor their steps. And so they scattered to the winds as leaves do.”
Bujold portrays gods who yearn for their children to arrive home safely at the end of their lives, and are heartsick at each soul that is lost:
“The Father of Winter favored her with a grave nod. ‘What parents would not wait as anxiously by their door, looking again and again up the road, when their child was due home from a long and dangerous journey? You have waited by that door yourself, both fruitfully and in vain. Multiply that anguish by ten thousands and pity me, sweet Ista. For my great-souled child is very late, and lost upon his road.”

But at the same time that she understands God’s love for His children, she also understands the fearful demand of the duty God lays on us to one another. Even better than she does in the Chalion books, Bujold portrays this in her science-fiction novel Falling Free, when engineer Leo Graf is thrust into the position of the only man who is willing and able to save the quaddies – children who, being genetically engineered to work in space, have two extra arms in place of their legs – from a Company that no longer needs them, and plans to have them quietly euthanized. When his supervisor washes his hands of the problem, saying he has done all one man can do to save the quaddies in the face of the company’s power, Leo also faces the choice, and grasps its full import:
“’I’m not sure… what one human being can do. I’ve never pushed myself to the limit. I thought I had, but I realize now I hadn’t. My self-tests were always carefully non-destructive.’ This test was a higher order of magnitude altogether. This Tester, perhaps, scorned the merely humanly possible. Leo tried to remember how long it had been since he’d prayed, or even believed. Never, he decided, like this. He’d never
needed like this before…”

The challenge that any attempt to criticize God must meet, and that so many of them fail to grasp, is a full understanding of the scope and power of an omnipotent God. It must understand that the same God that is credited with designing the galactic voids and the superclusters is also the God of gluons and quarks. That the same God who arranged for the long dance of evolution can care just as much about the dance of a father with his daughter at her wedding. This does not mean that we deny that terrible things happen: they do. We, the creation, have much to do with whether or not they happen. What it does mean is that we are obligated to understand that God is big enough to be there at the end of the roads of galaxies, and that He is small enough to open the door for a single human.

The Word: Faith and Hope and Charity: The Churches of Science-Fiction

Note: Another of my columns for Sci-Phi Journal. Time to get back to blogging!

Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love. I Corinthians 13:13.

Every era has its popular villains. In the classical age, sorceresses and evil gods were popular foes of brave heroes. During the Cold War, faceless governments of fascists and communists (often interchangeably) provided the necessary cannon-fodder. However, with the demise of the Soviet Union and the subsequent popularity of soft socialism, the two favorite antagonists for our heroes in contemporary fiction are evil capitalist corporations, and tyrannical, mind-controlling religious establishments.

Of course, there has never been any shortage of books in which religion itself has been held up, often through sloppy but dedicated straw-manning, as the refuge of the evil and the stupid. Heinlein was dismissive of “shamans,” Arthur Clarke pictured humanity’s next step to be a brave new atheism immediately succeeded by a transcendent “godhood” of our own, and Philip Pullman made God into a bloodthirsty, soul-destroying tyrant. And of course, the villains are far too often the evil church leaders: Nehemiah Scudder, and the bishops of the Church of the Final Atonement. Religion has never been more terrifying than when it acts collectively and in power, especially in the power of the state, as Frank Herbert rightly warns us, portraying a Fremen “religion” that is a great swindle, perpetrated upon a simple but passionate people by eugenicists of great power.

But the ecclesiastical power is merely the power of the people assembled, which is what, after all the original ekklesia meant: assembly, the same word the Athenians used to designate their democratic body. And if the church ought to be founded on faith and hope and charity – or, more accurately, love, which is a better translation of the Greek agape than the King James’ rendering of the Latin caritate into ‘charity’ is – then perhaps it is worth examining some more favorable portrayals of the Church in science-fiction and fantasy.

Faith: Faith is used by both the foes of religion and, less excusably, its adherents as an excuse for believing in what is manifestly false. This is not the result or the aim of real faith, but its perversion, just as refusing to accept data that contradicts a long-held theory is a perversion of science. True faith as the letter to the Hebrews tells us, “is the substance of things hoped for: the evidence of things not seen.” I will discuss two examples of this. The first is portrayed in Dan Simmons’ brilliant work, Hyperion. The priest, father Paul Dure, first lured into the temptation of falsifying data to “prove” his Catholic faith, goes on to become the Pope who launches ships to bring help to mankind after their last, desperate war with their own artificial intelligences. The second, and far more visceral, is Mary Doria Russell’s tale of Father Emilio Sandoz, who goes to Alpha Centauri to meet the beings there, and who is mutilated and raped viciously by them. In both cases, the men involved go through unimaginable pain. Both despair. And yet, both come back from the edge of that despair because of their faith. It is not a simplistic faith that God will always do what we recognize as good, but a faith that the good that does not exist must be accomplished in spite of great pain, in spite of impossibility, when that good seems utterly unreal, because their faith in it is the evidence for it.

Hope: Closely akin to faith is the concept of hope. In S.M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time series, the people of Nantucket find themselves swept back into the year 1250 B.C. Many of the island’s Christians initially fall under the sway of Pastor Deubel (whose name, in a Germanic linguistic pun, means, appropriately, Devil) who preaches that the islanders must commit suicide in despair, lest their appearance in the past prevent the birth of Christ in their new future. Rather than trust God and hope for the best, Deubel decides to burn the town of Nantucket.
When I first read this, I assumed that Stirling was using Deubel as an excuse to bash on religion, but was pleasantly surprised to find that the island’s leading priest, Father Gomez, pities Deubel’s followers. When the islanders decide to punish the fanatics by shipping them off to Inagua to mine needed salt, Gomez volunteers to follow them, hoping that by his own preaching, his fellow Christians may be restored to a state of hope in God’s goodness, rather than fearing His weakness.

Love and Charity: Lois McMaster Bujold is one of my favorite authors for this, as she sees so clearly that love is central to the human experience. It is, perhaps, no surprise that the Quintarian religion that she invents for her realm of Chalion turns out to be a true haven for the rejected. Quintarianism reveres five gods: The Father, the Mother, the Son, the Daughter, and the Bastard. While the Bastard is often feared as “the master of all disasters out of season,” he is not an evil deity, some excuse for Bujold to proclaim, monistically, that good and evil are all one. But the Bastard does show that what appears to be evil can often be a prelude to a good unimaginable to a human perspective. And the Quintarian church is a haven for those who do not fit easily into Chalionese society: bastards, by nature of their split parentage, and homosexuals, who could not marry the opposite sex, can find a place in the service of the Bastard.
My favorite portrayal of love expressed in the Church by a science-fiction author, however, is that of S.M. Stirling, in his character of Sister Marya Sokolowska in his alternate history series of the Draka. The Draka, as he portray them, found an anti-America in South Africa after the American Revolution. Founded by slaveholding loyalists, the Draka settle Africa and carry industrial slavery on straight through World War II, in which they conquer and enslave all of Eurasia.
Sold as a slave to a Draka master, Sister Marya, a Polish nun, has watched the other members of her order die, one by one. Again and again, she masters her anger and her fear to show the love of Christ to her fellow slaves, and, as much as she can, to her masters. In the end, she stands ready to sacrifice her soul by triggering a bomb that will deny the Draka a chance to interrogate her and an American spy that she has hidden.
What I find all these characters have in common is to remind us that faith and love and charity are difficult. They are not the rewards of ease, and practicing them does not come without real cost. But what is bought with that cost is the real freedom to act morally.

The Word: The Dark Side Of The Force

This blog post was written for the online magazine Sci Phi Journal.

Like so many of my generation – which I still prefer to call the Children of the Eighties – Star Wars was a great part of my introduction to science-fiction. I grew up adoring it, practically worshiping it. Surely nothing could be so good as Star Wars. And in a sense, I was right: Star Wars became a movie so iconic that, while it could be imitated, it could not be directly borrowed from. After Star Wars, who would dare to use lightsabers (or forceblades, or laser swords) seriously? After Star Wars, who could possibly consider using any power that would correspond to The Force?

Of course, besides the fact that it would be a shameless rip-off, there are other reasons why no one but George Lucas would use a concept like The Force. It was so ill-defined that it could defensibly do just about anything. It was the ultimate deus ex machina, and only the fact that the writers had the sense to use it somewhat sparingly saved the movies at all from their most defining feature.

But the two worst things about Star Wars’ portrayal of The Force are ones that I rarely hear discussed. Firstly, it was a great example of that cardinal sin of storytelling: Telling, Not Showing. While it certainly makes sense for Luke’s use of the Force to be limited in the first Star Wars movie, it certainly doesn’t make much sense for Obi-Wan not to show him what the Force can do, any more than it makes sense for Obi-Wan and Darth Vader to fail to use the Force during their combat. (Yes, I realize that the primary reason for this was because Lucas himself had obviously not figured out what he wanted the Force to be capable of, yet. In which case, it’s bad worldbuilding). Secondly, it missed a great opportunity to build characters with the depth necessary to address truly hard questions about the nature of power and its ability to corrupt.

Strangely enough, this is one of the few things that the prequels do just a little bit better than the original trilogy does. In Attack of the Clones, we get a clear glimpse of what it can mean to turn to the Dark Side of the Force and why that might be attractive. In trying to save his mother, Anakin Skywalker lashes out in anger and slaughters the Sand People, down to the women and children. He shows no mercy in doing so, and he regrets it later. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda warns Luke that “once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny,” but we never see that in Luke. Instead, he is told to take it on faith that the Light Side of the Force will be better served if he abandons his friends to Darth Vader, which he understandably resists.

Luke is never seriously tempted to join the Dark Side. To question the Light Side, yes. But he is never really shown to have any desire to seize the Force for any evil purpose, as Anakin did. And the Dark Side’s mastery of Anakin Skywalker begins with a tactic that is familiar to many terrorist organizations and criminal gangs: the new initiate is required to kill. Ideally he is required to kill a non-combatant in the name of the group’s ideals. This tactic works for two reasons: firstly, it puts the initiate on the wrong side of the law. He cannot go back without facing serious penalties. Secondly, and far more seriously, the initiate can never turn his back on the group without admitting to himself that he is a murderer. The only way to defend himself from that is to profess that the murder was really a virtuous act. And this, if true, can only lead to more “virtuous acts.” More murder. More terror.

Another excellent portrayal of the Dark Side’s power was that done by Kevin J. Anderson with his character Kyp Durron, who comes to be able to use the Force directly through surges of fear and anger to free himself from captivity. Unguided by any master, he discovers that fear, anger and aggression make him powerful, and underline the truth of Yoda’s claim that the Dark Side is “quicker, easier, more seductive.” And of course, it is, because it always has been.

The Force is on one hand a tame god. It obeys the will of the user. But on the other hand, it is a metaphor for that most challenging of theological concepts: free will. And like any person who discovers that his or her anger and fear can be fashioned into a weapon to bend and manipulate others, the temptation to continue using it becomes a sword sharp as a lightsaber, unsafe to hold from any angle. If you stop using it, those you threaten will be encouraged to strike back (most likely for the same reasons you struck them in the first place). And even if they do not, you will be left to face the guilt and will be forced to confess that your actions were wrong from the outset. Far easier, then to find any excuse to keep using the dark power, always for the noblest of goals. But any Star Wars fan – and far more sadly, any history student – knows where that leads. It leads to killing children to save the thing you love, and then passing it off as a difference in “point of view.” To, in the words of a better character, Aral Vorkosigan, do terrible things in the present to avoid false terrors in the future. We do not have to be Jedi to be tempted by the Dark Side. It is in all of us.

Childishness’s End, Please

Sunday is Theology Day here at my blog! Here’s another of my columns from The Mote in God’s “I” that I did for SciPhi Journal, may it rest in peace.

We’ve all had that moment of vindication and excitement when the news comes through that finally – finally! – one of our favorite novels (or series) are going to be translated to the screen. Big screen, small screen, it makes little difference. You’re going to see it on the screen!

That wasn’t at all the sensation I had upon learning that the SyFy channel was going to create a television series based on Arthur C. Clarke’s classic novel, Childhood’s End. Instead, my initial reaction was, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, that this series is going to fly in precisely the same way that bricks don’t. Obviously it’s too early to know whether I’m going to be right about that. I have not watched it. And the main reason for that is because I remember Childhood’s End as one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. It’s the atheist equivalent of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe , where the great triumph at the end of the work is not the defeat of death, but its celebration. Clarke’s atheism and disdain for religion was legendary during his life, and it is never more on display than here. So I find it very curious that such a great author and thinker seems to have been so trapped by religion. Clarke’s contemporary, the great Robert Heinlein, said in his novel Time Enough For Love,Men rarely (if ever) manage to dream up a god superior to themselves. Most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child.” Obviously, I disagree. But it strikes me that if Clarke is any example of the improvement an atheist has to offer, then the atheists still have a ways to go before they equal, let alone surpass, their theistic brothers.

The novel truly begins about five years after the Overlords have begun their “benevolent” rule over Earth. It opens with a protest against that rule, led by an ex-clergyman named Wainwright, who presents a petition to Stormgren, the Secretary-General of the UN. Wainwright’s stated objection to the Overlords’ forced Federation of Earth is that humans have lost the “freedom to control our own lives, under God’s guidance.”

This is the only mention of God during the entire exchange, except for Stormgren’s contention that many religious leaders support the Overlords. Yet Stormgren takes this statement of Wainwright’s as proof that “Basically, the conflict is a religious one, however much it may be disguised.” Later, the Overlord administrator Karellen agrees. “You know why Wainwright and his kind fear me, don’t you? You will find men like him in all the world’s religions. They know we represent reason and science, and, however confident they may be in their beliefs, they fear that we will overthrow their gods.”

The whole conflict as presented by Clarke is delicious in its irony: atheists, of all people, ought to believe in the importance of free will in the face of overwhelming authority and force (unless they are determinists who insist free will is an illusion). Conversely, it is people of faith who ought to know better than to demand freedom to live their own lives. Human freedom is sharply limited by God. Clarke is doing a bit of pop psychology here which is very popular at the moment: “It doesn’t matter what you say, you Opponent Of My Goals. Your real motivation is Horribleness, because you are one of Them!

Well, there’s a pop psychology term for that, and it’s called projection. Stormgren (a stand-in for Clarke) believes that “security, peace and prosperity” are the ultimate achievements of humankind because, in Clarke’s world, people who respect science are atheists, and science produces the desirable results. Therefore, anyone who does not desire those results must be motivated by their contempt for science, i.e. religion. It is further ironic that Wainwright, near the end of the interview bursts out with the line, “I do not know which we resent more – Karellen’s omnipotence, or his secrecy. If he has nothing to hide, why will he never reveal himself? Next time you speak with the Supervisor, Mr. Stormgren, ask him that!”

It is the cry of the frustrated atheist, or the doubting believer, who does not trust God to be benevolent. If he is there, why the mystery? Why does God not show Himself? And how can we trust Him with the power? Wainright turns that cry upon Karellen, who stands in loco Dei, or more accurately, in loco angelorum, moving in mysterious ways as ordered by even more mysterious masters. Of course, it was Arthur C. Clarke that is famous for his Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic.” It is therefore not, perhaps, surprising that the aliens mastering such technology would be indistinguishable from gods. But as Karellen himself observes (and as far too many of us have forgotten, in our urge to coexist at the price of, if necessary, integrity) “all the world’s religions cannot be right.” It is of course also true that “all opinions about the nature of God cannot be right.” And atheism’s opinion – that God’s nature is nonexistent – is just as vulnerable to that observation as that of any religion.

Voltaire famously remarked that if God did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent him. The context of that remark, which is less famous, makes it clear that Voltaire believed that religion served a purpose whether it was true or not. And even Clarke seems to tacitly admit this. In the presence of the Overlords’ revelation, human art and science dry up. In Utopia, there are artists’ colonies, but no great works of art.

Which brings up an interesting point: is it not rather strange that Clarke, openly scornful of religion, cannot simply let the dead dog lie? He brings in aliens with godlike technology, including a time-camera that proves that none of the world’s faiths are correct, and yet, when the secret of the Overlords is revealed, it turns out that even the godlike Overlords do, in fact, have a god of their own: the Overmind. The Overlords are its chosen people. They do not dare disobey it. It has communicated its needs to them, as each of the “child” races (of which man is one) approaches its tipping point in its parapsychological evolution, so that the Overlords can be there, helping the new race join with the pantheistic Overmind “God.”

Mr. Clarke, in all his rejection of the God of Abraham, has not displaced Him, but merely replaced Him with a New Monotheism in which evolution is the guiding principle. A Creator God is superstitious and unscientific, but an Evolved God is supposed to be enlightened, I suppose, because Science. The Overmind-God has its angels (which look like demons, because humanity detected their coming parapsychically across time itself)* and its superstitious rituals which work as badly as prayer ever did. The humans first contact the Overmind via Ouija board, for Ghu’s sake!

Of course, the tragic heroes of the story are not mankind (except for the parents who see their children grow up, not as adult humans, but as strange and alien creatures) but the Overlords, who are enslaved to this Overmind, doing its bidding, but forever denied the “grace” of merging with it. The Overmind is dangerous. It cares for nothing but its own ends. It openly uses the Overlords, and it is implied that defying it is something they “dare not” do. If they will not serve, they will be destroyed. The novel closes on Karellen, dwelling in racial self-pity: “They would serve the Overmind because they had no choice, but even in that service, they would not lose their souls.”

But what souls? According to Clarke, they have none! Not even the “evolved souls” that humanity’s children develop. The only way for Clarke to have a tragedy is to postulate a quality that he has spent the novel (and apparently, would spend his life) denying exists. Far from creating a God superior to humankind, Clarke creates one that is far inferior to the God of the Torah, the Bible, and the Qur’an. He does it by lobotomizing his God. Clarke’s Overmind possesses, apparently, no wrath, no love, no care for its fellow-creatures, except as they serve to increase itself. It is capable of almost everything… except love. Except noticing that which is beneath it. Even the Overlords are better “gods” than that, for they ban animal cruelty on Earth. But above them is indeed a Being of Satanic self-interest, which simply refuses to care whether it annihilates planets on a whim. Humanity may have emerged from childhood, in Clarke’s novel, but Clarke’s vision has not emerged from a childishness that makes only a poor copy of a Creator that, whether true or not, is much better imagined in the world’s faiths.

*this was one of the more absurd and chauvinistic bits in the novel, of course. Humanity somehow sensed the Overlords in the future as the architects of its doom as a physical species, but I guess only Christian monks and scribes got the memo? See? Christianity IS the best religion, Q.E.D.! 

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.

Theology vs. The Memes #3: The Problem of Evil. Well, Pain.

This meme, which is an actual quote from Epicurus (at least we think it is. It doesn’t survive in any of his writings. We have it from a Christian theologian named Lactantius who brought up the point to dispute it) is certainly one of the most common verbal hammers brought down on the heads of theists everywhere. Of course, if the argument were really all that devastating one might wonder why religion still exists at all. Among militant atheists, the answer is invariably, “because theists are stupid.” The idea that people who disagree with you are too dumb to breathe is certainly one of the most popular in human history, and by no means limited to atheists.

Of course, to examine the statement at all it is necessary first to define what is evil. As this is Epicurus, it is a fairly easy definition to make, because Epicurus defined it most easily. To Epicurus, every pleasure was good, and every pain was evil. Therefore, we may surmise that by “evil,” Epicurus meant pain, or any action tending toward pain. As Epicurus was not an idiot, he was well aware that certain pleasures could result in greater pain, and that certain pleasures (e.g. becoming a star athlete) could only be purchased at the cost of pain. In such cases, Epicurus would have recommended the course that led to the greatest net pleasure.

I do not share Epicurus’ view that evil is nothing more nor less than suffering or causing pain, but since those who throw this meme about the internet do, let us meet Epicurus on his own ground and assume that evil is pain.

I have to wonder: was Epicurus a parent? Failing that, did Epicurus have parents? And did he ever explain this philosophy to them, because as a parent, my instinctive response to this is: “BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA (snort!) HAHAHA (cough, cough, splutter)! Look, spend a day with my toddler and preschooler, and I will introduce you to the greatest sufferers in human history. They are in repeated, constant agony. The toddler didn’t get the raisin she wanted, and she wails like her teeth are being pulled out. The preschooler got the orange plate instead of the blue one, and she shrieks with all the terror of the damned.
And I, the God of raisins and of properly colored plates, do nothing to ease their pain. Thus, I am by Epicurus’ definition, evil. I am able to alleviate my children’s pain, but I am unwilling to do so.
I don’t have to explain this, of course, to anyone with an ounce of sense. I am denying my children these things because I want them to learn about their proper place in the human community. I want them to learn that screaming for things isn’t what good people do.

Now this is where my opponents put on their Righteous Outrage Masks and point out that

1) I am mocking everyone who suffers pain. And some people have suffered enormous amounts of pain, and how dare I blah, blah, blah, and FURTHER

2) Not all pain leads to, or even CAN lead to, learning to be better. Why, I must be one of those terrible people who blames victims for everything, including rape, murder, torture, and slavery!

I’m sorry. I’m not impressed by Righteous Outrage Masks. I grew up in the Baptist Church, and no one does Righteous Outrage better than a Baptist Ladies Society matron who’s trying to shame little boys out of playing with toy guns because JESUS!!

To take those objections seriously requires some discussion. Let’s begin with the first:

I am mocking everyone who suffers pain. I am not mocking everyone who suffers. I am mocking those who take their suffering for proof of God’s malevolence without the slightest awareness of the true depths of human suffering. I find it revealing that this “proof” God doesn’t exist has taken root in the richest, most comfortable societies that humanity has ever seen: Western Europe and its offshoots, the developed world. Atheism isn’t nearly as widespread in developing South America, Africa, or Southeast Asia. And yet far more suffering is there, by any measure. I suppose those people are just stupid? Because that doesn’t sound racist or classist at all. A much more probable explanation is that rich and powerful people can afford to forget and ignore God.
We judge the world by our experiences. We judge the severity of our pain by what we know. The sixteen year-old girl who didn’t get asked to prom isn’t lying, or even particularly dumb when she cries: “This is the worst I’ve ever hurt in my life. I don’t want to live any more!” It is, and she doesn’t. She is just acting her age, and she has no faith that things will (as an older person could tell her they will) get better. Her experience has told her that this is the worst it can possibly be. Just as she would roll her eyes and tell the toddler that crying over the green milk cup is ridiculous, so her mother rolls her eyes, comforting her daughter, while remembering her own foolish despair at that age.
From the perspective of an omnipotent, benevolent God, we are all that toddler. All that 16-year old. Nothing we have experienced is beyond His imagining. Nothing exists that He cannot fix. If Epicurus assumes that God cannot fix pain that has occurred, then he is begging the question and arguing dishonestly.
If, on the other hand, Epicurus is arguing that God is morally required to prevent some pain from occurring, then he is obligated to tell us how much. How much pain must God prevent to be called “Good?” Usually, when I ask this question, I’m met with an indignant, “Well, why can’t God stop earthquakes? Or genocide? Or pandemics?”
Do you notice no one ever turns this around to use it as an excuse to be grateful? No one ever says, “Thank God that there aren’t any dragons that carry people off and eat them! Thank God for preventing a nuclear war between 1960 and 1991! Thank God that there’s no such thing as immortal sorceror-kings ruling over us!”
So how much pain is God required to prevent? We seem to arbitrarily feel that it’s terribly unreasonable of God to allow us to suffer for ten years, but ten minutes is okay. Even though, from the perspective of eternity (hell, even from the perspective of, say, a million-year lifespan) those times would be nearly identical. The only reasonable conclusion, is that God must be required to prevent all pain, however small, from ever occurring, or be called evil.
The problem with this is, that pain is not merely physical. It’s mental. It’s emotional. And we tend to regard the worst pain we know as the worst ever. So for God to be good, there can’t be games. Losing a game hurts. For God to be good, there can’t be disagreement, ever. Disagreement hurts. For God to be good, there can’t be learning. Because learning implies that you were ignorant before you learned, and you might fail to learn the first time you were presented with a new concept, and failure hurts.
For God to be good, He must leave Himself nothing to be good to. Except, perhaps, another good God. There can be no creation, no development, no incompletion. Because all of those imply the potential for pain.

Not all pain leads to, or even CAN lead to, learning to be better. If by “being better” we mean, “correcting our faults,” then this is true. I’ll speak very plainly: The rape victim is not to blame for being raped, the cancer victim is not (usually, and I’m thinking of smokers, here) to blame for having cancer, and the torture victim is not to blame for being tortured. Nevertheless, the pain of these events may teach the survivors things. (And before you tell me I’m a complete asshole for even saying that, I am a survivor of two of those things myself. So you may do me the courtesy of considering that I may know what the hell I’m talking about. If you won’t, the problem is you). If nothing else, the pain may teach them how strong and resilient they can be. To anyone who can’t understand why that’s not the same thing as victim-blaming, I have nothing to say to you except that we live on different worlds, and yours is not the real one by any experience of mine.

Now I imagine some of my readers are at this point preparing to say, “Okay, so to a young mother who just saw her child die in a car crash, you’d say, ‘Don’t worry about that. God will reunite you in about seventy years, and in the meantime, you’ll learn how strong you are?'”
Of course not. It would be unspeakably cruel to say it right then, while she is in the midst of her grief and shock. You don’t dismiss people in the midst of grief. To her, I could only offer sympathy and any aid within my poor power. To her, we can only give the example of Jesus, weeping over his dead friend Lazarus, even though he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead. That we should die was never God’s plan. That He should save us from death, and make it a temporary horror rather than utter destruction, was always His plan.

The purpose of the argument is only to show that it is quite rational to believe in a God that is able to prevent pain, but is unwilling to do so right now, so that we, His creation, may experience, well… experience. To be alive in the universe at all not only permits but requires a certain level of pain. God teaches us this way not because He is limited, but because we are, as any created being must be. Our limits imply growth and choice, which together imply, at least on a certain level, pain. Therefore, some of the pain does come from God. But it is a pain designed to lead us to good. However, it is obvious that there is much pain left over that is not designed for out good. Therefore, with Epicurus, we may ask, “Whence cometh (this) evil?”

Well, the obvious answer to that is, overwhelmingly from us. From human greed and selfishness and sadism and spite and fear. We are the source of that evil and pain, not God. He can hardly be held responsible for preventing them. Unless we are simultaneously ready to admit that we are so evil and uncontrolled that we desperately need a God to order our behavior. That we cannot be trusted to do what is right. If we can be so trusted, then we must turn the dreaded “whence cometh evil” accusation upon ourselves. A curious paradox.

The pains we experience apart from human evil are painful precisely insofar as we do not trust God to remedy them by His power. The God of the Bible, in which I place my faith, promises further that he is indeed willing and able to prevent evil and pain, but that He has not yet done so. It is this forbearance in which we must trust. Because the forbearance that allows evil to exist, also allows the evil person to repent. Allows mercy. Allows forgiveness. Allows restitution, and reparation, which I need as badly as any person does who ever wronged me and made me suffer.

And that is why I call Him God.

From Somewhere In Orbit.

Theology vs. The Memes #2: The Emperor’s New Quote

I have seen this meme passed around a whole lot by certain types of atheist whose primary source of comfort is how much smarter they are than Christians because they can face the truth. Allow me, therefore, in the name of truth, to point out the first little problem with it:

That’s right. Marcus Aurelius never said it in the first place. The whole meme is a lie. There’s a quote that it may be loosely based on, but we’ll review that at a more appropriate time. Still, I’m sure that there are those who will claim that, regardless of the source of the quote, it’s still a good message. So let’s examine the whole thing and see what parts stand up to any rational interpretation of “good.”

1) “If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by.”

First, does anyone else wonder what the original author meant by “devout?” The people who pass this around probably don’t because the first rule of Meme Club is that you DO NOT talk about what memes MEAN. Memes are self-congratulation masquerading as critical thought. They work by giving the reader the illusion of having had an insight. They are philosophical porn. So in the absence of any definition I’m, going to guess that “devout” means how much you sing, dance, pray, sacrifice and wear cheap T-shirts extolling your deity, because this is the behavior atheists enjoy mocking.

The funny part is that Jesus rather enjoyed mocking it, too: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding of the blood of the prophets… Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town.” (Matthew 23:29-31, 34). The fact is that even if Marcus Aurelius had said this, Jesus would have anticipated him by nearly a century. Jesus and the Jewish prophets agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of the quote. “He hath shown thee, O man, what is good; and what the LORD doth require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8). Further, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27).

What the atheists and the “spiritual-not-religious” folk are missing here is that we all fail miserably at doing these things. They fail to consider what it might mean to be judged by a just God “on the virtues you have lived by.” The whole reason for “devoutness” is an acknowledgement by us that we have indeed failed to practice these virtues, time and time again. God’s standards are higher than ours. They have to be. If God’s standards are not better than our own, He has no claim to be God at all. This is why Jesus said, “You give a tenth of your spices… But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Matthew 23:23-25). Devotion is part of the virtue God expects, and what a Christian must mean by “devout” is something more — not less and not other — than living virtuously.

On to part 2 of the “quote:”

2) “If there are gods but unjust, you should not want to worship them.” This is the easiest part of the quote to agree with. But the inherent assumption here is that you know exactly what justice is. Even among good people there are disagreements about this. In the real world, the circumstances in which we find ourselves can not only make living justly a good way to get yourself killed, it can make justice literally impossible. And sometimes, people can be conditioned to think that behavior that would horrify most of us is perfectly normal. Men in prison have a strict code: don’t bump into each other. Don’t pick up another man’s matches. Don’t sit in another man’s chair. “Justice” for these infractions, in that context, can mean a beating or stabbing.

Are we so sure we are different? Killing for honor is still considered justice in many parts of the world. But we call it unjust in my part. If we call God unjust… how are we certain we are right?

And now for the biggest and most subtle lie of all:

3) “If there are no gods: then you will be gone. But you will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.” Except that’s a lie.  The only true part is the first: “You will be gone.” From your perspective, the story ends here, if there are no gods. Now, your loved ones, they will live on. But you will not know it. They could all be put to death by torture the second you cease to breathe, and you would not care. You could not care. This is one of the greatest lies that atheist thought believes, that there is a state called having lived. That state does not exist in any meaningful fashion. Nonexistence is at the root of it. You will be gone. You will be as utterly gone as if you had never been. Nothing will matter, because you will not exist for it to matter TO. In that nonexistence, the greatest saints and sinners are equal to each other, because they are equal to nothing.
There are only two ways to get around this, and in my experience, most atheists will not do it: admit that morality is a complete and utter illusion, because there is no evidence anything aside from human preference for certain behaviors exist, or admit the existence of something resembling an afterlife (or at least an afterthought), which must be taken on faith.

I cannot live in a universe that is governed by the former admission. And I do not greatly care, for reasons that should be obvious by now, for anyone who impugns my reason or intellect for refusing so to live. Why should I care what that person thinks? By their own admission, they will shortly not exist, and their moral judgments are but present constructs of taste and fashion. I will shortly not exist, and will care for nothing.
This is why I will continue to live by faith. For only if there are gods, and they are just, is life possible. This is why I will raise my voice with Peter, saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68).

I will leave you with some actual words of Marcus Aurelius, who did know better than this. Ironically, this may be the quote on which the above drivel is based:

“But to go away from among men, if there are gods, is not a thing to be afraid of, for the gods will not involve thee in evil; but if indeed they do not exist, or if they have no concern about human affairs, what is it to me to live in a universe devoid of gods or devoid of Providence? But Gods there are, undoubtedly, and they regard human affairs; and have put it wholly in our power, that we should not fall into what is truly evil. “

I’m a lot closer to agreeing with that.

Found Theology: Lovers In A Dangerous Time

This is the first in a series I’m calling “Found Theology,” in which I find spiritual insights in the everyday materials of life.

If you are scandalized by the idea of finding spiritual things in the works of a band called Barenaked Ladies, this is not the blog you are looking for.

I’m not a student of contemporary music. My tastes are that ultimate statement of ignorance: I know what I like.

So I was listening to Barenaked Ladies on the way home, at the end of the kind of day that leaves you driving a race in dark streets against your own steadily closing eyelids, drawing in breath after steady breath, and trying to count down how many more of them you will have to take before you are allowed to rest. The day had been a scramble from one immediate thing to another, and finally, it was just me, the tatters of my mind, and the single voice of the soloist:

The hours grow shorter as the days go by.
We never get to stop and open our eyes.

I’ve listened to those lines in self-pity before, considering the time I don’t have. But that night, I wondered what the author was thinking when he wrote the chorus, the low, rising growl of the song’s very name: Lovers… in a dangerous time.

Who were these lovers? Were they torn apart by war? By codes that forbade romance across class? Race? Within gender? And what made the time so “dangerous” that the singer felt the need to boast about being such a lover? The pretentiousness hung there, threatening to drown the song in self-importance. There is not a word, not a single justification for the “danger” of the time to the lovers, not even a word of concern about the singer’s partner in this danger.

And that’s when my perspective turned along a new axis.
I had assumed that the song was about people in love with one another. About romance. But it can be just as easily about anyone who loves. Who loves anything. Because when you love — when you truly love — you put yourself in danger. You cannot help it. Any time is dangerous for a lover. To love a thing means to subordinate yourself to its well-being. To put it in the sacred and safe place where you are accustomed to seeing only your own ego.

How could we ever do this and think we were not in danger? How could we ever do this and think we would not be hurt?

These fragile bodies of touch and taste
This fragrant skin, this hair like lace.
Our spirits open to a thrust of grace.
Not a single breath you can afford to waste,

Lovers… in a dangerous time.

If you think you love something, or someone, and can keep doing that without being hurt, you are fooling yourself. The love that says, “I will love until I am hurt” is no love at all. Our culture has begun to believe the very dangerous lie that only painless love is worth having. That anyone who hurts you is an enemy, not to be trusted. An abuser, not to be endured. And there is real abuse and there are real enemies. Those problems should be dealt with swiftly and decisively. But love is pain. Anyone who says different, as one of the great love stories of our time puts it, is selling something. There is a reason that love stories are so often tragic. And the model we have for this sacrificial love is Christ, who subordinated Himself to our need for compassion and salvation even unto death: the death on the cross. Even God could not get away from the pain of love. We are not better than Him.

Somewhere In Orbit

What We Can Learn From A Killer, A Mother, and Iran This Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday, a friend reminded me today, derives from the Latin command of Jesus in John 13:34: “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos,” with “mandatum novum” (shortened to “Maundy”) being the “new commandment” Jesus was delivering to his disciples, that they love one another as he had loved them.

And then I read this article, and saw these pictures. They are scenes from an execution in Iran. You can read the entire article here. But I’ll summarize. It’s a story that I imagine happens every day, many times over, in our broken world: Two young men fought, about what ridiculous stuff I can’t imagine. One, called here, Balal, stabbed the other, Abdolleh Hosseinzadeh, who died. Balal was tried, convicted, and sentenced to be hanged. His family apparently appealed, and the appeal was denied.

On the morning of the execution, Balal was led to the gallows, his mother looking on, watching her world about to come to an end. The son she had born, nursed and raised, to be hanged as a murderer. Beside the gallows stood the parents of Abdolleh, whose son was already lost. Balal struggled. Prayed. Screamed. Was quiet.

Abdolleh’s mother, Maryam, addressed the crowd. She could not forgive, she said, though she believed that Balal had not intended their son’s death. She had been, she said, living a nightmare.

We have all had dreams that became nightmares. But this time… this time the nightmare turned into a dream. Maryam turned. Asked for a chair. Moved it to face Balal who stood their, the death hood on his face, the noose around his neck. She stood on the chair. Slapped Balal across the face.

“Forgiven,” she said.

And she and her husband took the noose from Balal’s neck. The execution was over. Called off.

And that is how an Iranian mother, a Muslim, showed me today what it means — what it must mean — to be a Christian.

To forgive the inexcusable, at the cost of your own son’s life. That is the forgiveness of the very God of Christ; the sacrifice of the very Christ of God.

Some readers may accuse me of some sort of religious appropriation. I do not mean it to be that. I am well aware (given this story, how could I not be?) that forgiveness is not the invention, let alone the exclusive purview, of Christians. But forgiveness is central to Christianity in a way that I do not think  it is central to Islam. I take the centrality of Islam to be nearer to the concepts of submission and righteousness. I hasten to add that I will be gladly corrected by anyone whose Islamic theology is stronger than my own, which should be easy enough. I mean here only that this person has grasped the centrality of my own faith better than almost anyone, including myself, that I know. And my admiration for her, and her husband, is boundless. We must learn from them. Christ commands us to learn from them.

You may say what you like about the Iranian legal code, for which I am certainly no apologist, and which has done things I shudder to contemplate. You may say Balal should never have been sentenced to death. That the death penalty is wrong. Well, I am not here to defend the death penalty, certainly not as it is practiced in my own nation. I do think some crimes earn death, but that is not the subject of this discourse. I know only this: the forgiveness of his victim’s parents would not necessarily have saved Balal under our laws. And this is also a sobering thought. I am not a child: I know there are sound reasons for the state to prosecute regardless of the victim’s wishes. But I also wonder if we sometimes heed those reasons to the point that we choke out forgiveness.

I do not know what will happen to Balal. I have not the knowledge of the Iranian legal code to know whether he now goes free or returns to prison. Only one thing I know: he was dead, and is alive tonight. His parents, broken in despair, have a living son, and rushed to weep at the feet of his pardoners.

This is the love of God towards us: our lives, in return for a Son murdered. His command is for us to do likewise. To love one another, as He has loved us. Tonight I pray fervently, even as Christ prayed on this day more than 2000 years ago, that no such forgiveness shall ever be required of me. That I shall never stare down the dregs of that dreadful cup.

I pray also, that should it ever be demanded of me, that I shall obey as well as Maryam Hosseinzadeh.