A Report on the Curious Culture and Religion of the Acirema

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

A Report on the Curious Culture and Religion of the Acirema

by

An Alien Visitor

As told to

G. Scott Huggins

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

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

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

Overview:

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

Dualism:

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

Monism:

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

Faith and Magic:

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

Identity of Practice:

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

Denial of Faith:

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

Conclusion:

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

[1] Untranslatable gender

[2] Intelligent machines

His Kingdom Endures Forever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Temptation of Samuel Vimes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vetinari: “It is the only logical conclusion.”

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

Vetinari: “Yes? What is your point?”

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

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

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

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

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

The Word: Can God Make A Person Free Enough To Surprise Him?

Explanation: A bit over a year ago, I began writing a regular theology column for Sci Phi Journal called The Mote In God’s ‘I’. This is the column that launched the series, and remains my fastest sale to date (15 minutes). I am re-running it here, hoping my readers like it as well as the editor did.

The Mote In God’s “I.”

Most of the problems I’ve run into in my life, I have solved by the simple expedient of reading more science-fiction. I was too young to be an astronaut when I discovered that such an incredible profession existed, so I read Rocket Jockey by Lester del Rey. I didn’t have any friends in my middle-school years, so I read Anne McCaffrey and imagined myself a dragonrider. Somewhat more productively, I watched and read Star Trek and found myself a few like-minded friends who started tabletop gaming. Problem solved. Whenever dramatically boring people said I couldn’t use made-up worlds to solve my problems, I pointed out that a) the “real” world had no better track record at that, and b) it was working fine so far. Then I read more science-fiction and solved more problems.

One of the oldest problems in theology is that of free will versus theological determinism. If God exists, and is all-powerful and all-knowing as his followers claim, then how can his creation be possessed of free will? Won’t He know everything they are going to do beforehand? And if He does, is the future not fixed? And if fixed, in what sense do creatures have a choice?

(This essay is not going to concern itself with the debate on whether free will exists. For the sake of this essay, it exists. If you believe otherwise, go… do whatever the hell you were already going to do, I guess. I can’t stop you. More to the point, you can’t stop you. Have fun.)

On the other hand, if creatures have free will, then can God really be God? Doesn’t that mean he’s either not omnipotent, or not omniscient?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!

The problem is that many theological thinkers have just been willing to accept what turns out to be a false dichotomy. Calvinists, who believe in predestination, essentially say that yes, God does know everything, and are fine with that because the purpose of God is to glorify God. How God is glorified if it turns out that He Himself is the ultimate cause of evil, because no one ever had a choice not to commit it, I have never been able to figure out.

On the other side of the theological divide, we have the Arminians, who say that free will is sacred to God, so God would never interfere with it. While that certainly says a lot more for God’s character, it still doesn’t really answer how God can’t destroy free will by knowing the future.

In other words, the problem with both schools of thought is that their answers lack the imagination that provides the backbone of really solid science-fiction writing.

For the longer answer that is actually relevant I eventually formulated, I have to give credit, not, as you might think, to men like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (I’m going to assume we all know these guys were hard-core Christians, yes?) but to writers such as S.M. Stirling and Terry Pratchett. Because both of these men’s worlds really do contain the answer, if we look hard enough.

S.M. Stirling is my all-time favorite alternate-history writer. Sister Marya Sokolowska of his Draka cycle is one of my favorite religious characters in all of fiction. But it was The Peshawar Lancers that started me thinking along theological lines. In it, the “seer” Yasmini can see possible futures, enabling her to predict the results of present actions. As the novel progresses, she begins seeing all the possible futures, all the time, until it threatens to drive her mad.

Terry Pratchett, in his Discworld universe, more facetiously puts an omniscope (which can see anywhere and anywhen) under the control of the Department of Inadvisably Applied Magic. When asked to observe the future, he demurs, on the grounds that observing the future would cause all the possible futures to collapse into a single future, which, having been observed, would now be the only future.

In both of these cases, we see the same core idea: there are many futures to choose from. And while it might not be possible for a man to observe them all, as in Pratchett, or for a woman to keep them all straight, as in Stirling, it should be quite possible for God.

The solution to the problem is not that God be considered less than omniscient. It is that He be considered more omniscient than we had ever imagined. Why could God not see all possible futures, simultaneously, and then react accordingly as His creation, blessed with free will, makes choices?

There are really only two objections to this: Firstly, does this mean that God could be surprised? Maybe even thwarted? Certainly not, and science-fiction (or fantasy) again provides the answer, as any competent dungeon-master who has ever run a party through a Dungeons and Dragons campaign knows. Because the dungeon-master knows the rules. The party may do something unusual, and the die rolls may be odd, but they can’t really surprise him.  And by (in Hawking’s famous phrase) “throwing the dice where they cannot be seen,” God can certainly always create the circumstances He wants. But no being with infinite attention could ever be surprised, any more than an author of one of the old Choose Your Own Adventure books could be when a child reaches one of his endings. Yet, the child had free will.

Secondly, is it possible for God to keep knowledge from himself in this way (and you have to admit, that’s a lot more interesting than the old “can-God-make-a-rock-so-heavy-yadda-yadda-barf” question)?

Well, it’s hard to imagine why He couldn’t. His lack of knowledge doesn’t threaten Him or anyone He cannot protect. And God often speaks in “If… then” phrases in the Judeo-Christian tradition (Exodus 4 being but one example). Why would God need to use “if” when He already knew? Is He lying to his followers? That would seem more troubling than the idea that God might limit his own knowledge. By giving people free will at all, God would already have limited His own power, simply by allowing other power to exist. This objection seems petty.

There seems to be no intrinsic reason then, why free will and omniscience could not coexist, so long as we recognize the proper definition of “omniscience,” which requires, as science-fiction has always required – as religion, at  its best, has always required – that we always seek beyond the limits of the humanly and presently possible.

House Rules and The Limits of Agnosticism, By A Christian Agnostic

I sometimes like to describe myself as a Christian Agnostic.

Actually, that’s not true, I hate to describe myself that way, because it sounds so damned pretentious it makes me want to throw up. It sounds like exactly the kind of mealy-mouthed spinelessness I always hear from people who describe themselves as “spiritual-but-not-religious,” which is the pop culture Excuse Of The Decade for having an opinion on religion without actually knowing shit about it.

“God’s” House Rules

Nevertheless, Christian Agnostic describes a lot of what I believe about the God of the Bible. Because too many Christians like to relate to God through what I can only describe as the “house rules” of Christianity. You know how house rules work: it’s how we modify games to make them more fun for us. Like putting all the Monopoly money from Chance and Community Chest in the center and then giving it to the guy who lands on Free Parking. Which is awesome for games — usually. Until you get that one guy who doesn’t understand that it isn’t his house. Then it’s more appropriately called, “Making Shit Up I Happen To Like As I Go Along.” That’s also known as cheating. And people love to do it to religion: They make up rules based on their own culture. Or they extrapolate beyond the bounds of what God actually said. My favorite excuse for this in the Evangelical Church goes: “We should never see how close we can come to sinning.” And while there’s a core of truth in there, I find that 99% of the time this is code for, “If you don’t accept this rule I’ve made that’s more restrictive than the rule God made, you’re not really a follower of Christ.” This is bullshit now, and we know it is, because Jesus called the Pharisees out on it 2000 years ago (Matthew 12).

We can only know of God what God tells us, and since that’s so, we need to be very sure He did tell it to us. Otherwise, we are stopping people from following Christ because of our own self-serving conviction that unless they are as good as we are (snort!), they are not worthy of Him. So let’s be very careful what we say we know, as Paul did, when he was determined to know nothing but Christ, and Him crucified (I Cor. 2:2).

Agnosticism… And Its Limits

Yet when you clear away all the house rules, we do believe, if we believe anything, that God told us something in the person of Christ. We believe God sent us salvation through Christ, and that Christ spoke truth when he said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life: no man cometh to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). If Jesus is worth following, then He spoke the truth. And if He spoke truth, we are obligated to believe Him. And this is where we start to hit the limits of Christian Agnosticism. I hit it in a conversation.

It was a talk with a person I generally respect, which made it hard. We were discussing the spirit of this passage. Note that Christ said, “no man cometh to the Father, but by me.” He does not say how a man comes to the Father by him. Only that by Christ a man must come. And we expressed the hope that Christ may, in His power and mercy, save even those who dies without ever hearing His name, so that they too could know Him. I don’t see any promise in Scripture that it can happen, but I don’t see an absolute bar to it. I wouldn’t bet an eternal soul on it, but I hope that chance is there. More, I feel that Jesus’ command to love my fellow-man as myself requires that I hope that chance is there. That every person may choose to come to Jesus, and through Him, to God. And that is the limit of our knowledge.

But then my friend went further. Said that we don’t know even that. He claimed that perhaps, people did not even need to come to Christ, or God, because, you know, you never know. Maybe we don’t have to choose between God and not-God. And that’s where I had to part company with his reasoning, and the argument. Because, you see, while the limit of our knowledge is the beginning of our ignorance, it works the other way, too: The limit of our ignorance is also the beginning of our knowledge.

So you do not get to say that we don’t know what we were told about God any more than you get to say that we do know what we weren’t told. You cannot have that both ways. Once we believe we have a revelation (and if we don’t then this whole argument is damned — and I mean that with theological exactitude — silly) we must live by that faith. If we do not, we do not choose to live OR have faith. That’s what faith means. And that’s why standing up for Christ is so important. It may be that a person who dies not knowing Christ may be saved by Him. It is certain, however, that a living person who places faith in Christ will be saved.

Our knowledge is limited. Our lack of knowledge is also limited. Pretending otherwise — either way — is dishonest, and we should never expect that to have a reward.

From Somewhere In Orbit

Theology vs. The Memes #4: If At First WHO Doesn’t Succeed?

Oh, how one of my atheist friends loves the Noah’s Ark story. It is the ultimate proof of God’s incompetence and evil. The argument goes that if God couldn’t make people good enough not to sin, he’s not much of a god, expressed by the meme above.

Folks, this is the worst sort of begging the question when it comes to arguments against religion. What the meme wants to conceal is three separate assumptions that are made: firstly, that the success or failure involved is God’s. Secondly, that we are capable of judging that “success.” Thirdly, that God’s justice, like man’s, is circumscribed by death.

To take the points in reverse order, I’ve already noted that using premature death as an argument against the goodness of God is rather silly. The people killed in the Flood were already going to die. They would face God’s judgment eventually. By the laws of statistics, many of them would have died before reaching the average lifespan. If allowing people to die in a Flood is evil, then allowing them to die at all is hardly less evil. And of course, if you don’t trust God to be just to the souls of the dead, you’ve rather pre-judged your case, since you can have no experience of how He does that. And no, you can’t use God’s visible behavior to humans on Earth to judge what he does with them later. Otherwise you might just as well assume that every parent who speaks sharply to a child and then hauls them away from a party for misbehavior goes directly home and murders the child.

Which of course brings up the next two points. Do we not see that if we take the idea of God at all seriously, we have to imagine a Being that can plan on a scale of millions of years and has access to energies, times and spaces that we cannot conceive of? I realize that atheists don’t take the idea of God seriously, but that’s exactly what reduces memes like this to self-congratulatory wankery, utterly irrelevant to the average believer. It’s a straw-god argument. And straw-god is a real asshole, that is for sure. But if you want to convince believers, you have to take on a real god at some point, and that’s a much harder target, because you can’t judge a god’s success (let alone God’s) on a human scale.

Finally, the idea that the Flood (or any other example of mass death) was triggered by a “failure” on God’s part neatly and conveniently removes human action and accountability from the equation. Scripture’s take on the state of humanity was that life was nothing but people plotting to do evil (Genesis 6).

Again, I realize that my atheist friends don’t really believe in this story. But friends, if you’re going to condemn it as emblematic of the evil nature of the God we have imagined for ourselves, you’re going to have to be consistent, and you’re not even doing that well. First you complain that all the evil in the world is the fault of God and his “failure” to make good humans. Well, okay, let’s take that seriously for just a moment. If indeed that is the case, then surely humans, having seen the evil God allows, could prevent it, yes? If we are better than Him, then we must be able fix it; that’s the inescapable conclusion. Okay, not everything. I mean, we started from a pretty low technology base, so it’ll be awhile before we’re up to preventing plagues and floods.  But at the very least there should be no war, murder, slavery, or any other purely human evil, should there?

Oh, there is? All of those things exist? Gee, that doesn’t look very good for our claim to be better than God and stand in judgment of Him, does it? Hell, we’ve done a better job at preventing the plagues and floods!

If we are so capable of sitting in judgment of God, then why are we not doing better than Him? The failure is not His. The failure is ours. If God calls attention to that failure, then getting mad about it is about as admirable as yelling at the police officer who pulled you over for actually breaking the law.

And of course the other side of the coin is this: If we are not capable of doing better than the God we revile, then obviously we do need a God, don’t we? We need to desperately seek Him — to seek someone — out and discover how we can stop failing. When you’re failing, it’s time to listen and trust. Not to judge. Judgment is the purview of the successful.

If you really disbelieve, then all I can say is that blaming a god who doesn’t exist for your troubles is even more childish than worshiping one. The god you worship might turn out to be real. The god you blame might, too, of course, but you might think about the possible results of that. In either case, the failure is the argument against God’s ethics.

Confessions Of A Zero-Sum Gamer

When I was a senior in high school, I won an award I never even knew I was being considered for. If you haven’t been there, I’m not sure how to describe such a bizarre feeling. A teacher hands you an award, in this case an obviously-plastic book covered in gold leaf floating in a small block of lucite, labeled “The Xerox Award for…”

You know, I can’t even remember. Obviously, it was one of the defining moments in my life. And I scratched my head, trying to figure out why. I don’t think she ever really told me what I’d done to earn this award. Scored high on tests and achieved good grades, as far as I can see. You know — general all around awesomeness. It came with a small scholarship. A few hundred dollars.

I didn’t get it then, but that moment really was  a defining moment in my life. I vaguely wondered then if there was some other kid that had actually tried to win that award. For whom it had a real meaning. Who actually cared about it, had worked for it, and now was sitting there wondering why he or she hadn’t measured up to me. I still wonder about that, obviously, or you wouldn’t be reading this. But mostly, back then, I took it as my due. I was very good, then, at winning things.

I was a National Merit Scholar. My education was paid for by my own determination to be the loyal Son of Academia. If my peers called me a nerd (which was not at all cool in the eighties, but that’s a different story) and cast me out of all cliques of friendship? I would damn them and work twice as hard. Because I wasn’t just good enough and smart enough. No, fuck that: I was better,  I was smarter, and if people hated me, then who fucking cared? Because I was better than all of them.

As you have no doubt guessed, I was kind of an asshole. But I was a competitive asshole.

I was naturally good at the zero-sum game. A zero-sum game, for those who might not know, is a game in which the person who wins does so at the expense of the person who loses. For me to win, you must lose. Sports work this way. My W is your L. So do most games that make people hate each other: Risk. Monopoly. I chose to obey the rules, because they were good for me. Because I could succeed on the terms set for me by authority. Be better than others. It was easy for me to “win.” And yes, it’s been a blessing; I won’t lie. I’m not looking for sympathy from people whose college was paid for by parents (and yes, mine helped me out when the scholarship money wasn’t enough, too), or crushing amounts of debt, or a spouse, or a sleep-stealing part-time job. It was a good thing on many levels.

But what I learned from that was that I had worth because I won. I tied my self-worth to winning. Chained myself to it. “Link by link, I girded it on, and link by link I wore it,” in the words of Marley’s tired old ghost. Worse, I won so easily that I did not know how I won. I put little effort into doing it. It just was. When I tried things, I tended to win. Every victory was another validation of my greatness.

Until I began to lose.

The lows were as low as the highs had been high. I got out of graduate school, which I had attended with another full-ride fellowship I never really understood how I won, (GRE test scores, my friends!) and stopped winning. The reason is no doubt obvious to you. Because in the real world, no one sets the goals for you. In the real world, there aren’t tests, except can I convince someone to pay for this? Am I good enough to get people’s attention?

Of course I wasn’t. I hadn’t had to sell myself, and I hadn’t had to make friends. So I sucked at both those things. When I pursued my real dream, that of writing science-fiction and fantasy (nerd, remember?), I had no idea how to do it. So I wrote badly, alienated the few writers I did meet (asshole, remember?) or lost touch with them, and met rejection after rejection.

But I kept plugging away at it, because I didn’t know what else to do. And I was having a little success. A very little. I was better than the others in my writing group, anyway, and that was something, right? And we were all getting better. All three of us got stories into the final round of an anthology that was the most prestigious market any of us had ever been considered for (very little success, remember?).

They got in. I didn’t. And that, small as it was, was devastating. Because now I was worthless. All my life, I had tied my worth to my success. To being better than. And now I was worse than. The highs had been exaltingly high. But now, that life — the only life I had ever known — was over. I was a failure, and since that was what I was rather than a result of what I was doing, it meant hopelessness. It meant damnation. I stopped writing. What was the point? I was no good. I couldn’t talk to these people any more. I was shamed before them.

It took a long time to dig out of that crash. It took friends and mentors and counselors all helping me shovel the enormous pile of bullshit I had stuck myself in. And to be clear: the fact I was stuck there was my responsibility. No one else’s. Digging out of it meant getting through a lot of anger and resentment as I was forced to look up at people who were now more successful — and, in my twisted world, therefore better — than me.

One of the things that pissed me off the most in those days, were the gracious people. Those incredibly condescending, gracious people, who kept saying how happy they were when others succeeded, because writing isn’t a zero-sum game.  They loved it when other people did well. I dismissed these people as liars. After all, of course writing is a zero-sum game. If you get into the anthology or the magazine, I don’t, because there’s limited space. Besides which, the people saying this were the ones who were succeeding. They’re like the rich guys saying “money isn’t everything.”  Only then I remembered something. My writing group, those people who had dared become better writers than me? (And they still are, by the way, much better writers than me; they didn’t quit in sulky rage). They didn’t play the zero-sum game. They didn’t look at the world as an arena. And though I doubt that either of them will read this post, I will take this time to apologize to them. I am truly sorry for my unfriend-like behavior and disrespect.

It wasn’t, as I had told myself, that successful people could afford to play the zero-sum game. It was that people who didn’t play the zero-sum game could afford to fail. And the failure that they accepted, learned from, and capitalized on became success. I, who could not tolerate losing, had damaged my own soul, incredibly. Because I could not love, could not befriend, and could not learn unless I was winning. Could not tolerate even looking at my failure long enough to learn from it. And that was true foolishness.

Because really, I should have known. I should have at least trusted in the words of my own faith, which teaches us that our worth is in things like kindness, patience, self-control, goodness, love, joy, and peace (Galatians 5:22-23). That should have been enough for me to know that worth does not depend on what I make other people do, still less upon defeating them. The cost to me in friends lost and opportunities missed and lessons unlearned is beyond numbering. Doubtless, many of you reading this feel that I am an idiot. Well, I was. Perhaps you feel any good person ought to know all these things already. Perhaps you were fortunate enough to learn these lessons at a much earlier age, from better teachers. Well done. I can only learn from where I am.

So why am I writing this? For pity? No, I neither deserve nor need that. You see, I’ve learned better. I am becoming better. No, I’m writing this in the hope that someone who reads this will need to read it. That people out there who can’t sell a story, or can’t land a job in their fields, or can’t find romance will listen, as I did not. Will see that they are not irrevocably flawed, so long as they can practice virtue.

Also, since followers of Christ should know this better than others, I leave a warning to my own Church. I see far too much, at this present time, about the Church “winning” or “losing,” especially in politics and culture. Our victory is not over flesh and blood. It is already won by Christ our founder. Our faith is no zero-sum game. And as long as we can love our enemies, we can never lose.

From Somewhere In Orbit

Put All The Gods Back In Schools: Why We Need Religious Education

What would you say if the school systems of the nation refused to teach children about a subject that affected the entire population of the world for all of known history, and has been used both as a motivation to liberate, persecute, build and destroy nations? Would you not justifiably wonder at the ignorance and cowardice of the institutions that are supposed to be teaching our children? And yet no one seems to question the fact that our public schools systems by and large do not teach about the religious beliefs around which (and sometimes in spite of which) the moral structures we build our society upon rest. We ignore them entirely, and as a result, students have almost no understanding of what religions have taught or do teach, and which inform the actions of millions within the nation and billions outside of it. The result of this is a citizenry that is incapable of putting together the most rudimentary theological statements. They can neither examine nor defend a religious position, nor comprehend a religious text. They think all religious statements are opinions, on the level of “I like strawberry ice cream,” or “I’m a Chicago Bears fan.” They do not understand that for many of their fellow Americans, let alone the people of the world, religious faith is a matter beside which matters of life and death dwindle into insignificance. And because of that, we are unable to relate to our fellow humans.

You see, whether you believe that the Bible (or the Koran, or the Bhagavad-gita, etc.) is the Word of the Lord to Mankind or whether you believe it is the biggest pile of bullshit ever delivered — and certainly whether you like it or not (as if the world cares) — religion is, long-term, one of the most  successful ideas in human history. There have been gods before there were nations, before there were states, possibly even before there were economies. This is why I don’t take anyone too seriously when they say that the death of religion is just around the corner. These people are at best the equivalent of the liberal who, after Richard Nixon’s 49-state sweep in 1968 said, “I don’t know how McGovern lost; I don’t know anyone who voted for Nixon.”

Further, until the day that religion does go away, there is no one on the planet who can logically fail to have a religious position. “I believe in God” is a religious position. “God is a fairy-tale” is a religious position. “I don’t know” is a religious position. And your religious position, once known, affects the behavior of other people with religious positions toward you. Even refusing to declare a religious position will do that.

Therefore, we are doing a grave disservice to our children, to say nothing of our nation as a whole, when we do not teach about religions. And why do we not teach about religion? Because we are petrified of the potential consequences. We are scared that our children will be exposed to religions we don’t agree with. Our children might turn Muslim. Or atheist. Or Christian. To which I can only say: if you are so worried that being exposed to religious ideas other than your own in a class for a year or two might cause your child to embrace another religion than the “true” one you are teaching in your home, then you must not be doing a very good job of being the (un)religious leader of your household. I think that’s a big fear behind our unwillingness to consider this idea. We’re worried that our kids might become one of those people.

Oh, we pretend to have higher motives. We don’t want to “offend” anyone. Sure. So rather than make anyone the least bit uncomfortable, we, in the name of civil discourse, pretend that religion is either unimportant or does not exist. We are lying to them (which they know) and telling them that public discussion and debate about such things can’t happen because disagreeing with someone over such matters is tantamount to a declaration of enmity.

Is this the right lesson to teach in a democracy? Because we’re teaching it. That’s what we’re teaching by not teaching religion. That disagreement is hostility and war, and the only way to avoid that is to lie to one another. And a democracy cannot survive that loss of trust and honesty. No, what we need is a Comparative Religion course that forces our students to examine the different belief systems according to their own points of view. We take a comprehensive view of, say, the six-to-ten most practiced religions in the nation (yes, including atheism) and teach their historically-known origins, the origins as they see them, and an overview of the dominant doctrines. For kids who believe in a faith not represented, we let them have a day of class time to present their faith, or to invite a religious leader of their choosing to present it. No one is forced to pray to anything, or to participate in any overtly religious activity. No one is proselytizing. Everyone is studying, and learning what people believe.

Now about this time I expect to hear a few major whines:

“But why can’t Social Studies classes teach that? They teach history, and religion is part of that, right?”
Yeah, but it’s big enough to warrant its own class. That’s like asking why we teach US History and not just World History. Isn’t the US in the world? I can’t teach all the doctrines of even all the major religions. I’m not qualified to explain their theologies, and how they’ve changed, and why people act the way they do in support of them. I might be able to with some training, and time to teach them, though. Which means, having a separate class.

“But what about all those people pushing their own agenda? What about bad teachers who push THEIR religion onto MY kid?!”
Okay, seriously, you think you won’t hear about that? Treat it like you would any other incompetent or abusive teacher. Report it, complain about it, and if it gets bad enough, go elsewhere. If it’s real, and not just you being paranoid, it will be addressed. Bad teachers happen; this subject isn’t special.

“I like the way we do it now, because it does teach kids that religion is unimportant, and religion shouldn’t exist.”
Well, okay. That’s at least honestly said, but of course, you’re turning around and lying to the kids and they know it, as I said above. And you’re taking the position that it’s okay for the government to push the religious position of agnosticism on our children (because you acknowledge it is doing that), which is both unconstitutional, because it effectively violates the Establishment clause, and bad education, for reasons discussed above.

“But what if we get it wrong?!”
Okay, this one at least isn’t rooted completely in selfishness. But we get school wrong all the time. Ask any teacher. We will get it wrong, frequently. But it’s not the end of the world. We screw up, we learn, and we do better. We consult with religious leaders if we’re accused of misrepresenting matters of faith, we take their input, and we do better next time. Like adults who care.

Adults who care need to teach this, without fear or favor. Without flinching. Because otherwise we are further teaching a lie, and weakening ourselves.