What He Taught

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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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.

Screwtape’s Toast: A Retrospective, Part II

For those of you just joining us, I would encourage a reading of Part I of the Retrospective on the Toast of Screwtape, found here.

But now comes the point. Gastronomically, all this is deplorable. But I hope none of us puts gastronomy first. Is it not, in another and far more serious way, full of hope and promise?

The best use of the squabble between the Corporatist and the Activist leaders is the fact that instead of either working against us, they work primarily against each other, while the masses of humans debate about which is “better.” We, of course, do not care. The important thing is that the real leaders of humanity, the ones with real drive and moral force, will be sucked up into the endless war and co-opted. Even more advantageously for us, the ones who are actually strong in the virtue they call humility will conclude that they are in error and will eventually imitate their fellows out of pride, despair, or cowardice. The few courageous enough to follow their moral convictions will be labeled as cranks and silenced, or better, ignored.

Consider, first, the mere quantity. The quality may be wretched; but we never had souls (of a sort) in more abundance.

And then the triumph. We are tempted to say that such souls — or such residual puddles of what once was soul — are hardly worth damning. Yes, but the Enemy (for whatever inscrutable and perverse reason) thought them worth trying to save. Believe me, He did. You youngsters who have not yet been on active duty have no idea with what labour, with what delicate skill, each of these miserable creatures was finally captured.

The difficulty lay in their very smallness and flabbiness. Here were vermin so muddled in mind, so passively responsive to environment, that it was very hard to raise them to that level of clarity and deliberateness at which mortal sin becomes possible. To raise them just enough; but not that fatal millimetre of “too much.” For then, of course, all would possibly have been lost. They might have seen; they might have repented. On the other hand, if they had been raised too little, they would very possibly have qualified for Limbo, as creatures suitable neither for Heaven nor for Hell; things that, having failed to make the grade, are allowed to sink into a more or less contented subhumanity forever.

This problem is one which we have finally surmounted, through a process Screwtape only dimly, if at all, foresaw, and which is worth some discussion. We have at last succeeded in teaching vice as though it was virtue. Not through argumentation, of course, but by encouraging the most glamorous and loudest platforms to those who practice the vices, and by encouraging acceptable lying. In America, we have taught them this very well. Cowardice is now called “pacifism.” Lust and adultery are called “love” and “self-discovery.” Betrayal and disloyalty are called “honesty” and envy is called “justice.” In this way the humans cannot “see and repent” as Screwtape feared. Who can repent of a virtue? And the more they are assailed, the more fiercely they defend it, seeing themselves as martyrs to their chosen vices. And the fact that all of those can be actually virtues only determines the humans to defend them more fiercely. All we need do is to make sure that they never ask themselves WHY doing what they like should be considered virtuous.

In each individual choice of what the Enemy would call the “wrong” turning, such creatures are at first hardly, if at all, in a state of full spiritual responsibility. They do not understand either the source or the real character of the prohibitions they are breaking. Their consciousness hardly exists apart from the social atmosphere that surrounds them. And of course we have contrived that their very language should be all smudge and blur; what would be a bribe in someone else’s profession is a tip or a present in theirs.

Here Screwtape was more prescient. For as we noted, we no longer simply blur the words of their language. We hardly need to. Their own knowledge of it has been so far degraded that they can hardly use it as a tool, anymore than they can use tools. Those whose lifespans are approaching their natural end in their most powerful nation can remember a time when it was a point of pride among men and women to use tools with their hands: to make and repair things because they understood them. Such people were very hard to fool, when Screwtape wrote. But their grandchildren are a different matter. Their machines are now so complex that most of them cannot be understood, let alone repaired, by a single human. We have replaced young men spending their leisure hours working on the engines of cars with frustrated children hanging on the line to tech support. And faced with  problem they turn helpless to the “experts” to replace them. Therefore they are unused to struggle and mastery of their bodies or their minds. Which is exactly where we want them.

The job of their Tempters was first, or course, to harden these choices of the Hellward roads into a habit by steady repetition. But then (and this was all-important) to turn the habit into a principle — a principle the creature is prepared to defend. After that, all will go well. Conformity to the social environment, at first merely instinctive or even mechanical — how should a jelly not conform? — now becomes an unacknowledged creed or ideal of Togetherness or Being Like Folks. Mere ignorance of the law they break now turns into a vague theory about it — remember, they know no history — a theory expressed by calling it conventional or Puritan or bourgeois “morality.”

Again, our task is much easier now. Rather than reject morality for even the slightest of reasons, the children are now taught, and by the time they are adults believe reflexively, that morality is a wardrobe, which can be assembled and worn to suit them, depending on how it makes them feel, and that anyone who says differently is simply out to control them.

Thus gradually there comes to exist at the center of the creature a hard, tight, settled core of resolution to go on being what it is, and even to resist moods that might tend to alter it. It is a very small core; not at all reflective (they are too ignorant) nor defiant (their emotional and imaginative poverty excludes that); almost, in its own way, prim and demure; like a pebble, or a very young cancer. But it will serve our turn. Here at last is a real and deliberate, though not fully articulate, rejection of what the Enemy calls Grace.

This rejection is now automatic. Grace and sin are two concepts that they do not even understand. But they can avoid the first by doing the second in selfish abandon.

These, then, are two welcome phenomena. First, the abundance of our captures: however tasteless our fare, we are in no danger of famine. And secondly, the triumph: the skill of our Tempters has never stood higher. But the third moral, which I have not yet drawn, is the most important of all.

The sort of souls on whose despair and ruin we have — well, I won’t say feasted, but at any rate subsisted — tonight are increasing in numbers and will continue to increase. Our advices from Lower Command assure us that this is so; our directives warn us to orient all our tactics in view of this situation. The “great” sinners, those in whom vivid and genial passions have been pushed beyond the bounds and in whom an immense concentration of will has been devoted to objects which the Enemy abhors, will not disappear. But they will grow rarer. Our catches will be ever more numerous; but they will consist increasingly of trash — trash which we should once have thrown to Cerberus and the hellhounds as unfit for diabolical consumption. And there are two things I want you to understand about this: First, that however depressing it might seem, it is really a change for the better. And secondly, I would draw your attention to the means by which it has been brought about.

It is a change for the better. The great (and toothsome) sinners are made out of the very same material as those horrible phenomena the great Saints. The virtual disappearance of such material may mean insipid meals for us. But is it not utter frustration and famine for the Enemy? He did not create the humans — He did not become one of them and die among them by torture — in order to produce candidates for Limbo, “failed” humans. He wanted to make them Saints; gods; things like Himself. Is the dullness of your present fare not a very small price to pay for the delicious knowledge that His whole great experiment is petering out? But not only that. As the great sinners grow fewer, and the majority lose all individuality, the great sinners become far more effective agents for us. Every dictator or even demagogue — almost every film star or [rock star] — can now draw tens of thousands of the human sheep with him. They give themselves (what there is of them) to him; in him, to us. There may come a time when we shall have no need to bother about individual temptation at all, except for the few. Catch the bellwether, and his whole flock comes after him.

It should hardly be necessary to state that this happy state of affairs has long since been realized on Earth. By rejecting the Enemy, the humans have filled their need for Him with a desire to fling themselves at whatever leader makes them feel closest to that now-unattainable ideal. If they will not worship that which is greater than themselves, they can now be drawn to what looks greater. And we have even regained a great advantage of polytheism, the ability to fling humans at each others’ throats in the names of their little gods, all of them false.

 

 

 

 

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.

To My Fellow Evangelicals, A Last Plea Against Trumpery.

I am writing this, my last political message before the election, to my fellow evangelicals. I do not believe there will be much of value in it to any non-Christian readers, unless you wish to see a dialogue between Christians. Here I am going to lay out my reasons that I believe that no Evangelical Christian (indeed, any Christian) should cast a vote for Donald Trump. I will also answer some common objections to these reasons.

Firstly, I would like to point out that Donald Trump has, throughout his life and public appearance, acted in a manner that is utterly opposed to Christian values. He has treated his employees and those he has contracted with abominably, cheating them of what was agreed to. He has lied about his own words. He has remained ignorant of the Constitution and its tenets. He has degraded people in public, both specifically and generally: he has insulted and quite possibly assaulted women, Black Americans and Mexican-Americans. It is terrible that he should say these things while claiming to be a Christian. It is equally terrible that he should become a Christian and not seek forgiveness for this behavior and take steps to repent of it.

Secondly and moreover, by acting this way, Donald Trump has become a caricature of what many non-Christians, both in the United States and in the world, see in the Evangelical Christian culture. We are accused of being centered on white, middle-class American culture rather than on Christ. We are accused of not caring for the poor, and not caring about the abuse of women. If we embrace and vote for this man, it will be a damning and convincing proof to a generation who are already more than half-convinced that we care more about our middle-class comfort and our political icons than we care about Jesus Christ and about our fellow man. More importantly, he becomes our witness to the world as the kind of politician we support.

And I will point out that those who claim that Donald Trump is anointed by God to lead us are resting on an unscriptural and unhistorical interpretation of the Bible. While it is certainly Biblical that God can (and has) used flawed, and even unbelieving people as his leaders, no prophet has anointed Donald Trump, and their claim has absolutely no basis in fact. It would be far more relevant in this case to remember the many examples in Scripture of God punishing those who did believe in Him, but nevertheless broke his commandments. They were not blessed for performing empty rituals before God. But Micah said (4:8), “He has shown thee, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of thee: but to act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.” The Trump who violates contracts does not love justice. The Trump who threatens to sue his accusers (even suing false accusers would be wrong, but these are almost certainly telling the truth) does not love mercy, and the Trump who will not admit that he needs forgiveness is not walking humbly with his God.

The only reason left to vote for Donald Trump would seem to be that he could hurt Hillary Clinton. But can he?  I would like to point out that according to any reputable poll, Donald Trump cannot win this election. In order to do so, he would have to take almost every state that is even close to voting for him. These polls have not been wrong in recent memory, and it is unwise to suggest that they are wrong now. Therefore, I suggest that all the arguments for voting for Donald Trump that imply that he is the only candidate that can beat Hillary Clinton are invalid. He cannot defeat Hillary Clinton. True, he will come closer to defeating her than any other candidate, but that doesn’t matter. If you are jumping a 15-foot cliff, it matters not at all whether you jump two feet or twelve feet. You will not make it to the other side. Donald Trump will not be President.

Now someone might respond to this argument and say, “That is only true because of people like you who are voting third party. You should trust God to do a miracle and vote for Trump!” That’s a false objection for three reasons: Firstly, national polls suggest that Hillary already has a majority of voters behind her. Secondly, if that is true about Donald Trump, it is true for all the other candidates. Those who vote for Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, and Evan McMullin are under no obligation to change their votes simply because Trump voters will not change theirs. If defeating Hillary Clinton is indeed the goal, Trump voters can do that as well, and achieve the same goal. And if the issue is trusting in the power of God to do miracles, then He can do them whether I vote for Donald Trump or not. He could elevate anyone to the Presidency, including myself. And if we want God to do a miracle, wouldn’t it behoove us to vote for a man whose heart is closer to God’s than Donald Trump’s?

If it is true that Trump cannot win by our efforts, then the only thing left to ask ourselves is, “what sort of person do we want to stand behind? How can we attest to the character of Christ by our vote?” We must act both as wisely as we can, and we must act as morally as we can. And while there may be those who say, “it is a wise strategy to vote for Donald Trump so that we can show the nation that Hillary Clinton is opposed by a united front,”  I would point out that strategy cannot be our idol. Our Lord said that we were to be “wise as serpents, but harmless as doves.” And Donald Trump is anything but harmless. And there are strategies that do not involve winning this election. Frankly, even if Trump COULD win this election, voting for him would be bad strategy: It would alienate further those we are commanded to win for Christ. It would be impossible for us to get rid of him in four years (whereas we may very likely rid ourselves of Clinton in four). And it would put the blame for electing a bad President directly on our own heads. If we must HAVE a bad President, at least let it not be our fault!

The strategy that we must want, as Christians, above all else, it seems to me, is not to find ourselves back here in four years. Not to once again have to choose between two evils, one who claims to support us while spitting on our values, and the other who openly boasts of wanting to change our values to her own. And in all US history, there is only one way we have seen to do that, and that is for a third party to win states. It happened in 1892, 1912, 1948, and 1968. And each time, one of the major parties underwent a great character change, absorbing the values of the third party. An there is only one candidate that is capable of winning a state: Evan McMullin is quite likely to win the state of Utah. Therefore, I suggest it would be wise to vote for Evan McMullin.

Now some might say that while it is wise to vote for McMullin, is it really Biblical to support a Mormon? Well, first of all, if you’re considering voting for Trump, I’m guessing you likely voted for Romney, in which case, you have already crossed that particular bridge. Second of all, Mormon beliefs, while we consider them to be scripturally and theologically unsound, are not much ethically different from our own. But judge for yourself: McMullin’s positions are here. And finally, who is our neighbor? Have we forgotten the good Samaritan? He was, by Jewish lights, a heretic, and yet his acts made him a neighbor to the wounded Jew. Surely Evan McMullin, who shares most of our beliefs, and could make our issues heard again, is not unworthy of our respect.

Friends, I am not the only Evangelical who is speaking out against Donald Trump others have said it better than I. Join us. Vote against this man who is poised to do us such damage. Stand up against him: he is far more damaging to our witness than anyone else in this election could ever be.

Theology vs. The Memes #5: God the Federal Government

God Terrorism

As Samuel L. Jackson’s character tells us in the movie The Long Kiss Goodnight: “When you make an assumption, you make an ass out of ‘u’ and ‘umption.'” Making an assumption about human motivations is always dangerous. One of the greatest causes of the deep political divisions of our nation today stems from the belief that we can tell what our opponents “really want.” People who are pro-life don’t care about babies, they really want to make women second-class citizens. People who want gun control don’t care about safety, they really want to establish a tyranny.

The meme above is a perfect example of this in action. What does the bumper sticker say? It says that God is bigger than government. One would hope, of course, that He is. Given the almost legendary incompetence of governments in general and the United States government in particular, worshiping a God that was not bigger than the government would be a waste of time. Quite frankly, if that were the case, I’d leave the church and begin worshiping my cat. At least that way I would occasionally receive the blessing of snuggles. The worst, really, that you can say of this particular bumper sticker is that it says my God is bigger than your government, giving some cloak of innocence to the voter who displays the sticker, as though he or she were not equally culpable in the mess. If that is what is meant, then the believer is guilty of some degree of hypocrisy, yes. But terrorism?

There are really only two ways to get to the claim that this sentiment is “how terrorism starts.”  One is to automatically assume the worst about people. We’ve already seen why that’s a bad idea. But of course, there is a far more dangerous basis for making the claim, and I suspect that it is this idea that stands behind the meme: it is the idea that the entire concept of something bigger than the government, something bigger than unified human action (because that is what a government is, when boiled down to basics) is equivalent to terrorism. And that, I suspect, is the real motive of whoever created this meme. And yes, before anyone else points it out, I will save you the trouble and admit that I too may be falling into the trap of assuming the worst of my opponents. But whether the makers of the meme intended it or not, this idea is out there, and it is dangerous.

It is dangerous because it cuts right to the heart of the binary between theism and atheism: either there is a God, a Being that holds the absolute truths of existence in an unshakable grip, or there is not, and human desires and concepts are the ultimate determiners of right and wrong. If that latter is indeed the case, then God the Father is a lie, and must be replaced by human values. And herein lies the irony. The very concept of the God-King was rejected during the Fall of the Roman Empire, perhaps one of the few true advances in human thought during that decadent and hopeless time, when the Divine Augustus gave way to the servant of the Divine, Constantine the Great. But the atheist must replace the servant of the Divine with humans who, if not gods themselves, wield all the authority of God to determine what is right and wrong with the force of law; God the Federal Government. Therefore, it must follow that if this is true, people who believe in a God that is greater than the government are not only delusional, they are blasphemers. They are heretics who believe that something more, and something better than God the Federal Government exists, and therefore they are equivalent to terrorists, who will dare to defy the Holy People’s Will in the name of their ridiculous God. And of course, they will have to be suppressed for the good of the people.

This bumper sticker is not how terrorism starts. It’s quite possible to believe that God is bigger than the government and not need to undertake any violent (or even non-violent) action against the government. This meme is how fascism starts: the belief that no idea can challenge our secular lords and masters without being a threat that must be destroyed and criminalized.

From Somewhere In Orbit

 

 

 

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.