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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is why I call Him God.

From Somewhere In Orbit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On to part 2 of the “quote:”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m a lot closer to agreeing with that.

UnWisdom: 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

A Purpose In Suffering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theology vs. The Memes #1: The Empathy Fraud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Not Fearing the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Forgiven,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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