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.