Things Fall Apart. The Center Cannot Hold These Rights

I have been reluctant to respond in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to declare marriage rights constitutional rights. I do not feel the need to retread ground that others, more intimately connected to these issues and the conflict surrounding these issues, have covered more adequately and better than I can. However there was one post that has stuck with me. Rachel Held Evans a popular Christian and political blogger, said on her Facebook page (6/27):

“Civil rights aren’t up to a vote. They aren’t up to public opinion. Civil rights are part of what it means to be an American citizen. Theological arguments around marriage set aside for another day, I simply cannot find a single compelling argument in support of denying civil rights to LGBT people that does not rely on an unhealthy marriage (sorry!) between church and state.”

I suppose Ms. Evans may have meant that civil rights are not up for an ordinary vote. If so, then what she said was a bit sloppy, but essentially correct. However, I suspect that what she meant was that Civil Rights are not up for a vote at all. Certainly it’s what was meant when Gay Rights activists in the seventies marched behind a banner reading “Human Rights Are Absolute,” quoting Jimmy Carter. His quote thus takes its place at the end of a long line of ideas that sound like wonderful affirmations of the human spirit until they are subject to five minutes’ thought.

Historically, of course, the idea that Civil Rights are not up for a vote is utter and complete nonsense. The very meaning of Civil Rights is “the rights you have as a citizen.” Do people really not understand the way this works? The Civil Rights we enjoy in the United States were created by a process of voting, from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitutional Convention, up through the Civil Rights Acts of 1964-68. All of those were done by voting. Some were prefigured in the English Bill of Rights of 1688, also passed by vote of Parliament.

To be sure, the Constitution itself declares that it is not the source, but rather the instrument, of the rights. The simple enumeration of these rights, declares the Ninth Amendment does not disparage the others retained by the states or the people. It points to a principle that the rights exist, but are merely codified by the Constitution, or the laws.

However, one of the very rights the Constitution protects, and explicitly enshrines, is the right to alter the Constitution itself, and that includes the Bill of Rights. Which of course, implicitly makes the claim that some rights are more absolute than others. The most important, in this case, would be the right to edit the codification of rights.

So when we say that human rights are absolute, do we mean they are morally absolute, and belong to us no matter what the State might say? Or do we mean that they are legally absolute: that we have a right to laws codifying and supporting our exercise of our human rights?

Historically, of course, we have meant the latter. This very process that we have seen last week meant the latter, except that the courts, rather than the vote direct, were the lever of choice. And when those Civil Rights have not been left up to (or enforceable by) the vote, both our American and British ancestors have fallen back on the other guarantor of Civil Rights: the sword. Which of course, is an even more dangerous precedent to build your human rights upon than the vote, although it is ultimately the same, because never, in the whole history of humanity, has there been an expression of popular will (or legal ruling) that did not ultimately depend on the possession and willingness to use force.

However, if the legal battle is merely over the power to express human rights that permanently exist and are, as Jimmy Carter said, absolute, then where do those absolutes come from? It certainly does not come from “science” or “nature.” A thorough study of science and nature will not lead to the least idea that “human rights” — certainly not rights to “life, liberty and happiness” — exist in nature or because of laws that can be derived.

See, I know Jimmy Carter and his religious background, and I keep coming back to one inescapable source for that absolute. The same one that the Declaration of Independence referenced, right after its 18th-Century Enlightenment appeal to “Nature:”

“Nature’s God.”

The Enlightenment thinkers, the Founding Fathers among them, may have had a lot of problems with their philosophies of life. Unthinking racism, sexism, an acceptance of chattel slavery as the cost of doing business, and a blind trust in a “Nature” they barely understood (hence “natural” rights), but one error they didn’t fall into was believing that an absolute was not required.

The idea that human rights — much less Civil Rights — are not up for a vote presupposes that they are grounded in an absolute truth. This must be clearly understood, because if it is not, then the whole idea that they are in any way special is founded on a lie. Moreover it is founded on the worst kind of lie: the lie that knows it is a lie, and does not care that it is a lie. It is the treacherous lie of the mob to itself that says, “We have created our own absolute, which we know is not an absolute, but we will call it one anyway because it makes us feel better.” Like the treacherous spouse that swears “Until death do us part,” all the while knowing they can call the divorce lawyer if ever they are dissatisfied, rights founded on this lie have no permanence and deserve no respect. At best they are a sort of mass-mysticism of human passion, liable to turn on their present beneficiaries in the next crisis. If we do not see this, we are blind. We can hold to no rights.

If we wish to reclaim our sanity, and to claim our rights are based on an absolute authority, we must identify that authority and its claims. And then we must submit to it. And if there is one thing I see in our nation that frightens and disheartens me, one thing that all sides in our present political morass share, it is the utter unwillingness to submit. Submission is only for our foes to do to us. Which will lead us inevitably back to the Absolute of the Sword.

It is, of course, those who are winning legal support to express their rights that should be most aware of the danger here. They are the ones who were most recently that target of laws that favored others’ expressions of rights above their own. They will feel most keenly the fear that tempts them to use their new power to suppress their old foes. To take revenge. To silence and destroy them. And this is a very real and complex conflict: just how far do we dare press some rights at the expense of others? We have seen above that we cannot treat them as equally absolute. In our present law, the right to change our legal rights reigns supreme. This is perhaps wise, as it allows that we may have erred in the past. But we could make laws immutable, favoring other rights. Legally, anyway.

What right will be favored? The right to express our feelings? Or the right to the feelings themselves, enforced by the binding of expression? Choose carefully. And admit to your absolute. The hypocrisy you avert must be your own.

From Somewhere In Orbit

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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.

A Purpose In Suffering

“I’ve been a deep believer my whole life. 18 years as a Southern Baptist. More than 40 years as a mainline Protestant. I’m an ordained pastor. But it’s just stopped making sense to me. You see people doing terrible things in the name of religion, and you think: ‘Those people believe just as strongly as I do. They’re just as convinced as I am.’ And it just doesn’t make sense anymore. It doesn’t make sense to believe in a God that dabbles in people’s lives. If a plane crashes, and one person survives, everyone thanks God. They say: ‘God had a purpose for that person. God saved her for a reason!’ Do we not realize how cruel that is? Do we not realize how cruel it is to say that if God had a purpose for that person, he also had a purpose in killing everyone else on that plane? And a purpose in starving millions of children? A purpose in slavery and genocide? For every time you say that there’s a purpose behind one person’s success, you invalidate billions of people. You say there is a purpose to their suffering. And that’s just cruel.”

https://www.facebook.com/humansofnewyork/photos/a.102107073196735.4429.102099916530784/703035336437236/?type=1&fref=nf

I keep seeing posts like this. I don’t know why it was this one that moved me to respond here – I’ve learned not to respond to the individual who shared it – and I wonder how people can be so experienced with God, and yet understand Him so little. Above, we read the statement of an ordained pastor, a Christian for forty years, abandoning his faith over what is admittedly one of the biggest challenges that any doctrine of a good God must face. And yet, I ask myself, how was he so sheltered, that this challenge has only caught up to him now? What world was he living in that this pain, so well-known to me, only batters down his faith after forty years?

Before going on, I will grant him one point. It is sometimes terribly, terribly cruel the way we speak of God to those who are suffering. We speak when we should not. Possibly we do this because there are no words in the face of intense suffering, and remaining silent seems callous and wrong.

We do it because we are human and flawed, saying, “God had a plan for the survivor,” and do not think about the dead. We are, at best, too grateful for our own blessing to think of the bereaved.

And that should never be. In the midst of our joy, we ought to be the most sensitive, the most careful, of the grief of those who are suffering, remembering that their sorrow could just as easily have been our own. That we are not so sensitive is a deep condemnation of our selfishness and pride.

May God help us if we dare think we escaped disaster because we are more valuable, more special, or “better” in God’s sight than those who died before us. Because the destination is the same in the end, and we should shudder to think we might face their Father with such hateful words on our lips.

And yet what is Biblical is the very thing that this man cries out against. Yes, God does have a purpose in the death of the people on the plane. God does have a purpose in the starving of children. God does have a purpose in slavery and genocide. At least one purpose is extraordinarily obvious: to show us just what the consequences are of the evil, the greed, the hardheartedness, the carelessness, the sloth, and the wrath that we nurture in our hearts.

And please spare me any self-righteous cries of, “We already know that!” How ridiculous. It is plain from the most cursory review of our actions that we do not know that. If we knew it, we would not allow them to happen. Certainly we wouldn’t allow slavery and genocide. These actions are the results of our negligence, murder, and uncharity. And we are shown, in the most horrible way, the cost of our separation from God. It is no fault of God’s that we have made the world what it is.

This is the point at which the holier-than-thou Pharisees of atheism will rise, and rend their clothes and cry: “How dare you reduce the lives of children to nothing more than a signpost that reads: ‘Repent, Sinners?’ Is that all the victims meant? Were they nothing in themselves? Is that all the value that your ‘loving God’ assigns them? It is morally vile!”

Well, of course it’s vile, you morons! Or rather, it would be, were the underlying assumption – that death is the end – true. That the starving simply starve in the end. That the beggar dies under curses and the spit of his “betters.” That the slave lies crushed by his burden, never to rise.

How opposite of the Gospel that proclaims the captive free, the reviled honored, and the dead raised (Luke 7:22)

It is not the Bible or its God that reduces children to ciphers, unknown and unloved. He is the God that numbers every fallen sparrow, though the sparrows do fall (Matthew 10). No. It is this man, and those like him who encode our children into history as ciphers of meaninglessness, as if they meant more because their deaths are robbed of any purpose. And then they are called brave and clearsighted for losing their faith.

I want to go to this man, my fallen brother, and ask, how could you have been what you were, for as long as you were, and not have known that our hope is not in a god of fairness-on-Earth, but in the God who raises the dead to eternal glory? Was it that you never knew, or is it some sudden pain that overwhelmed you? If our faith is true, then they are not dead, but risen. Like their Master, they wait for us, in the place where no shadows fall, where we must all one day go. Where God waits to be reunited to all His children that will come. He grieved their pain, and their deaths, and rejoiced in their coming home. As He will rejoice in our homecoming.

This is what we dare not forget, and I want to shout it from the mountains: We will all be there one day! Whether we are starved, murdered, or vaporized in explosions, and whether those explosions are accidental or not, we will be there. Even if we die in bed, surrounded by riches, and those who love us, we will be there. And the pain of that parting will be no less, because we are old, will it? Do we devalue the lives of the old so much that when they die, we say it was no great loss? Are the lives of the old less valuable than the lives of the young simply because they are old? What strange morality is it that says, “To live only six years is tragedy, twenty is tragedy, forty is tragedy, but eighty was enough, and this death is acceptable, because…” Because WHY, for God’s sake? Because we’ve gotten used to it? Have we seen so much of life that we will be willing to lay it down then, because we have seen everything there was to see?

I cannot imagine that. I have lived in the generation that saw the first pictures of Jupiter and Saturn close up. I have seen the face of Jove boiling in livid red crystals of ice. I have seen the colors of the nebulae brought to us by telescopes in orbit, and I shall not pronounce, “Enough of this life,” until I have walked on the planets they spawned, and sung a hymn beneath them to the Lord of Worlds.

Except that the pain is too much for me to last that long. Except that I will grow old, or sick, or be wounded, and die for lack of life. And whether that day is tomorrow or in fifty years, I will have suffered loss, and pain, and sorrow. And I pray God that there be a purpose behind that, though I never know it in this life, because in the end, it is not cruel. Cruel is the belief that the blessed in this life are the only blessed. Cruel is the belief that only those who know pleasure can be happy. Cruel is the belief that all the things we were is in the end void of meaning. To have purpose in suffering is a blessing indeed.

Theology vs. The Memes #1: The Empathy Fraud

The blog that follows is the first of a series I hope to do taking on ridiculous antireligious (and possibly some religious) memes, so if you follow my blog and know a meme that needs to go away, send it to me!
The modern age’s sermon is the meme: that picture or phrase that hits a nerve and is swallowed uncritically by the fan of its position. Most of them can be exposed as ridiculous with 5 minutes’ thought, but that’s the strength of the meme; it’s absorbed before it can be thought about, and becomes one more brick in the wall of confirmation bias. Memes are the brain candy of the present age. If you’re up for some exercise, read on:

EmilysQuotes.Com - need, religion, morals, right, wrong, empathy, wisdom, unknown

I seem to see this thing sprouting like a fungus all over my message feed from my atheist/agnostic friends on every holiday. It shows up as often as the War of Christmas and is even more full of bullshit.

Pared down to basics: morality is empathy, not religion. So religion is unnecessary. YAY! Atheism FTW!

Now let’s get one thing out of the way at the outset: It IS possible to discover and do morally right actions from empathy. Not only is this pretty much everyone’s shared experience, it’s right out of Jesus’ mouth: “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in Heaven give good gifts to those who ask him?” Matthew 7:9. Empathy is important, because for most of us, it’s an instinctive spur to do right and avoid evil. Our basic empathy, augmented by our moral training (more on that later) is our first, reflexive defense against doing evil.

No, the problem with empathy as morality is quite simple. It’s big enough and troubling enough that most people can’t see it. Those who can are forced to realize how fatally it compromises their whole claim to be moral — to be “good without God,” to use one of their favorite phrases — and are forced into either moral McCarthyism, or into a statement of faith.

The problem, most simply, is this: why have empathy at all, when it doesn’t benefit me? It’s a very simple question, but it has no simple answer.

Faced with this question, the morality-is-empathy crowd have a truly limited number of options. The first and dumbest is to go into circular reasoning: “Why have empathy if it doesn’t benefit me?” “Because other people matter.” “Why should I think that?” “Empathy!”
It should be Logic 101 that empathy cannot be the reason people should have empathy.

The next response is moral McCarthyism: threats and bullying. “You have to have empathy for other people because otherwise we will all think you are a disgusting human being and shun or destroy you.” This may of course work to compel someone’s behavior, but it’s just a threat to hurt someone if they don’t obey you. And of course, it’s just as compelling a reason to limit one’s empathy. After all, one of the most common threats leveled at people who refuse to conform to the shunning of nonconformists is that they themselves will be shunned.

Finally, the person who believes morality is empathy may simply respond, “Because empathy is the highest good.” But that is an a priori statement of faith. Why should truth not be the highest good? Or wealth? Or power? Or any number of things, including God? There is simply no way to connect empathy and morality without a statement of faith to someone who denies that empathy is a moral necessity. You either have to convince me that showing empathy to another person is best for me (in which case I will demand evidence) or that showing empathy to another person at my own expense is morally required, in which case, you are demanding I have faith in something you cannot demonstrate.

Over and above this, simply having empathy doesn’t make you moral, any more than exercising makes you healthy and strong. Exercising can be fun, and so can empathy. There are any number of moral duties that are easy and delightful to follow: it’s easy to give your own child bread when he asks. It’s delightful to love your lover. It’s easy and necessary to give to the honorable and serve the great. But beyond that, let’s be honest and admit that, like exercise, empathy is hard. It hurts, if you want to extend your empathy. And untrained empathy, like untrained exercise, can hurt you worse than doing nothing: Exercise too hard and fast, and you can injure yourself. Empathy without knowledge would stop you from imposing discipline on your children. If you have empathy for only one set of people, you’re a bigot. If you have empathy entirely without limits, you can’t even turn over a criminal to the police, or save an abuse victim from an abuser (I have never known an abuser who did not feel very strongly, that s/he had every right to do as s/he did).

So we have to be trained to use empathy with wisdom. It begins in childhood when we are asked that dreadful and incessant question: “How would you feel if it were you?” Our empathy, in the beginning, is just as good, and bad, as our senses of balance and fine motor control. It has to be improved over the years with just as much play, practice, and getting it wrong as we spend learning anything else. Obviously, a lot of our training takes place under threat. If we do not show empathy, others will not show it to us. Eventually, we learn the empathy we did not start with and begin to feel pain on behalf of others.

Unfortunately, this is when we begin to fall for a counterfeit and believe that our present feelings are as good as absolutes. And when you discuss morality, you must refer to an absolute. Because if that’s NOT what you mean, then all you’re saying is, “I am now acting in accord with what I feel is right because the majority of people I choose to care about also feel that it is right.” In other words, your morality is picking an in-group and going with it. It is a mere appeal to authority vested in whatever cause or god you choose to bow to. In other words, your empathy has become religion.

And you cannot solve this problem simply by saying: “More empathy.” I repeat: if your empathy is not limited by a structure, then you are left without argument as soon as Rocket the Raccoon says, “No, you don’t understand: I want it MORE than he does. I want it more, sir.” It’s laughable.

There must be a place outside feeling that tells us when to obey our empathies, and when to resist them. Sometimes (teaching our children what to eat, for example) that can be science, because science is a useful absolute in those cases. But where can we turn to when science has no answers for us? When we must decide whether it’s good to trust a person, or not? Whether we can afford to extend charity, or not? Whether we can maintain a friendship, or not? Science has no answers for us, here. So we must turn to another absolute.

Many friends have explained to me, with moving sincerity, that though they acknowledge that morals are relative, they have morals, real morals, which they will defend through hardship and pain. I have no doubt this is true. I have seen it. They are sincere. And yet, all that they are saying is that their morals are as they are today. Today their morals are this. Tomorrow, they may be that. Between two moral codes there can be no judge. There can, of course, be war. What else could there be? If there is no moral code aside from empathy, then the only thing left is to change your opponent’s feelings, by force if necessary. Reasoning with him or her is impossible, because moral improvement is impossible. Only moral change exists. Morality that rests on empathy is mere fashion. And against the tyranny and onslaught of fashion, the Absolute is our only defense.

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

Not Fearing the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
 Proverbs 9:10

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding.
Psalm 111:10

I’d like to pass on one of the greatest gifts I was ever given by my spiritual mentors today. Mostly, it’s a gift I have from my father. It’s a dangerous gift; a gift that in itself is frightening, and is far less common than I believed, growing up. It is the gift of not fearing the Lord.

Of course, most Christians would say they know that the phrase “fear of the Lord” as found above and in other places in Scripture means respecting Him, not “being frightened of God.” But so many people, whether Christians, followers of other faiths, or atheists are very obviously frightened of God. And like any other fear, this leads to denial, anger, viciousness, and an obsession with safety that swallows up everything else a man or a woman is meant to be. And this places the Gospel of Christ in deadly danger.

Christians who are frightened of God are the worst witnesses that Christ can have. My father knew this instinctively, yet so many do not. And in my travels I have seen, met and heard of Christians who act as though their God is so small and so petty, that He will let their souls — yes, the souls he died for — slip through his fingers as though they were game pieces. We have in the Church Christians who are frightened of people who are gay, of people who are Democrats (yes, and of Republicans), of people who dress revealingly, of people who swear. We have people who are frightened of unbelievers, and people who are frightened, laughably, of getting a receipt that informs them they have been charged $6.66 for their fast food meal. And though this is pathetic and saddening, it is not yet damning.

What is damningly worse, is that we have Christians that are so frightened of God, that they dare not investigate their own faith, and ask questions of their own Scripture. The Bible is an ancient text (actually, the Bible is many ancient texts) written in very foreign languages to people who quite literally lived on a different planet.* It demands investigation and training to read it with wisdom. As I grew in the faith, I asked questions of my father about God and about Scripture, and I got answers. They weren’t always the answers that I wanted. They weren’t always answers that were satisfying. They weren’t always answers, I discovered when I was an adult, that I could accept. But I was never made to feel like a fool or an apostate for asking them.

What a different experience this was from that of so many of my friends who went to their parents, or teachers, or pastors, and were rebuffed, shamed, or even abused for simply having questions. Who were taught that asking a question of God was somehow tantamount to disrespect, or even heresy. Who were given no mercy for the crime of being curious children. I’ve met these people again and again and most of them have walked away from God, never looking back, because God was too frightening and too arbitrary to stay around. They found that the only safe course was to deny that God exists at all, because He was presented to them as a little tin dictator, dealing out death in return for questions. But I am not sure that they are the worst off. They may hear of Christ again, from better ministers and, having had the courage once to turn away, may find the courage to turn back again to the God who offers salvation.

What is worse than this is those who stay in the Church, frightened to death of their own God, desperately singing praise and preaching a Scripture they do not understand and dare not investigate, lest the wrath of their terrible and unforgiving God fall on them. They justly earn the mockery of the world because they don’t know their own religion as well as the people who hate that religion. They become a laughable parody of the Church: a faithful, quivering mass of followers too scared of their own God to know him as well as their enemies do. And they pass along their deadly fear of the Lord.

We must not fear the Lord, but live in a faith strong enough to challenge Him. Strong enough, like Moses, to ask to see God in the face. Strong enough, like Christ, to ask for a way out when the pain of the cross seems too great to bear, and yet to continue on. We must have the strength of Job, who, when he was alone and surrounded by cowardly friends, had faith enough to demand justice at the hand of God. And to do so in the face of his friends, who feared the Lord. They feared Him so much that they dared not ask for goodness from him. No, they threw their friend Job right under the bus of karma when he was suffering, even though he had never done anything but good to them. Because if Job did not deserve the evil that was falling on him, then they would have to face the more frightening truth that they themselves might not deserve the prosperity and health they were enjoying. They would have to face the fact that tomorrow they might be where Job was now. They would have to face the terrible truth that they too lived by the grace of God, over whom they had no control. So they told Job that what was happening to him was justice, to reassure themselves.

And what did God say to these fearful men? He said “Go and make sacrifice, for you have not said of Me the thing that is right, as my servant Job has.” Job was right. He said of God the thing that was right, even as he demanded justice. And that is true faith: faith in God to be good to us. We have too many “faithful” Christians who are so afraid to do anything, that they do nothing, or worse than nothing because they fear that God is a hard master. Jesus told us what is happening to those who bury their talent, clutching their tiny bit of grace to themselves out of fear of punishment: they have no part in the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 25). The world rightly laughs at this “faith” and shuns it.

It is a hard, hard thing to trust God. He expects a lot of trust, because He is ultimately trustworthy. Yet any faith that does not trust in this God is a foolish faith, and much, much harder.

Fear not, my friends. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, perhaps. But trust in the Lord is the end.

*Still the Earth. But a very different Earth. Stay focused, friends.

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.