Almighty

Just learned that an old friend lost her young boy. Her only child. Kid was about the age of my son, maybe 6 or 7 or so.

Car accident. An all-of-a-sudden thing. Everyone else involved is apparently ok, physically. Organs donated. Someone’s life possibly saved by this child’s unwitting sacrifice. God’s hand at work, I guess.

But here’s the thing. They say that God is almighty, omnipotent. He can do anything and everything. If He so chooses.

He’s omniscient, too, according to the prevailing view. So He knew this was coming.

Did He choose not to spare this boy and his family? Or was He unable to do so? Set aside the “good” that came from the tragedy, the boy whose life may have been saved by the donated organs.

Consider my old friend. Did God choose to allow her to experience the deepest pain one can imagine? Or was He impotent to prevent it?

People say God exists. They say He is good. And they say He is almighty. These three assertions cannot all be true, given the current circumstance of my friend.

Perhaps He is not almighty, in which case He could not save the boy.

Perhaps He is not good, in which case He is not worthy of praise or adulation.

Or perhaps He is not there. In this case the tragedy is no less painful. But it is understandable, given our imperfect world.

With no God there, we each become that much more important to each other. We are all we have. We can love and cry and hurt with each other in times like these. We can encourage and sympathize and simply care for one another.

And eventually, we can live and smile and laugh together again. We are not almighty, but we do have power. We have the power to love each other.

Ornery

September 2001. The wife and I are looking forward to a fishing trip in Montana, just a month away. Smith River, wilderness. The scent of spruce needles, fish scales, and B.O. wafting merrily about as we and friends match wits with small-brained icthyoids.

But you know what happened. Deluded zealots crashed some planes and shut down the country. Though planes would be flying again in time for Montana, our friends cancel, and we look for something else to do.

“How about a bike trip?” says the wife. “Why not?” say I, and off we go to New Hampshire, via Boston’s Logan, of all places. We meet up with an eclectic group, including four moms from North Carolina on a girls retreat, an interesting and friendly nearly-retired couple from Arkansas, and a creepy single guy from Florida, among others. It turns out that guided bike trips tend to attract an older sort of crowd. My bride and I are the youngest there by about a decade. “No matter. It’ll be interesting,” we think, and we were right.

And so we rode New Hampshire’s and Vermont’s byways on dorky bikes, braving fast-moving cars and seriously sore nether-regions. The idea of the trip was to experience New England’s fall foliage while getting some exercise, and then relaxing in various inns and B&Bs along the way. Most of the places we stayed were pleasant, but one stands out — an old New Hampshire estate postured on top of a nice little hill.

The centerpiece of the grounds was a log cabin embodying a character of the sort you just cannot re-create these days. Upstairs were about eight guest rooms, all sharing two toilets and adorned with the most magnificently ancient red shag carpet. Downstairs was the dining room sporting a table big enough to sit about fifteen. Around the corner a hearth the size of a small Buick managed to warm everything within a radius of eight feet and nothing beyond.

The estate had been subjected to several abortive attempts at commercial viability. Among the earliest, some time in the 1930s, was a downhill ski resort. Keep in mind that this was New Hampshire, not the Rockies. Apparently the prospect of whisking jovially, but not quickly, down nearly two hundred vertical feet of fairly shallow slope, then grasping a rickety-looking tow rope and repeating the process did not a make for a solid business operation.

The subsequent owners, recognizing the flaw in the previous business plan, thought to install a cross-country ski resort. Unfortunately, cross-country skiers — at least the kind that would stay in a resort — tend not to heartily embrace trudging not-so-jovially up nearly two hundred vertical feet at the end of the day to get to their warm beds.

So the cross-country skiers were replaced with boys whose parents thought they needed a good old-fashioned camp experience. How a boys camp could fail to make a profit year after year takes little imagination, once you consider the costs associated with boys. The damage caused by ignited flatulence alone could put you (and some of the boys) in the red.

By the time we arrived, however, it seemed that this fine hilltop had found its niche. An elderly couple ran the inn with flair and dispatch. The husband tended a huge garden whence came many of the ingredients in the delicious meals crafted by the wife’s expert hands. Fresh chocolate chip cookies — better than your grandmother’s, I’d wager — greeted us on the second floor balcony that overlooked a lovely rolling landscape. The beds were clean, the grounds were mowed, the food was exquisitely down-home, and the whole place just felt like a throwback to a halcyon yesteryear, the kind that never existed except in our collective white-washed imaginations.

Yet something was off. The husband-wife team were not so much a team. She was a pistol, quick with a verbal crack and consumed with a pessimism so grating one could not be sure of its sincerity.

He was a beaten man, looking as if he had tried to tame the shrew and lost. The practiced, ornery banter between them was the kind that had obviously been nurtured and aged, like a good wine, to achieve that perfect blend of biting wit and resigned frustration. In the hands of less-skilled combatants, such exchanges may have resulted in divorce many years before, but these folks were masters. They relished their grumpy repartée and wore their ornery as one would a too-heavy parka on a not-quite-cold-enough day. Throwing it off would be too much. Keeping it on leads to overheating and a rising temper.

Watching the interaction between these two former lovers made me wonder about the devolution of affection. Presumably, they were once a man and a woman, each impressed with the other. They had a first kiss, a first night together. He confessed his love, she opened her heart. And now, years later, they bicker constantly.

At the very top of the hill stood a flagpole, the Stars and Stripes still flying at half-mast. The flag, if nothing else, is a reminder of history. The history of this patch of ground was one of missing the mark. What is it that they say about history?

Announcement

To my readership (both of you):

I may deviate from the topic of religion and belief. Why? Because I want to. And because I don’t want to go through the trouble of setting up another blog. I hope you don’t mind.

That is all.

On Getting Low

Dear friend wrote a book. Well-written, superbly researched. Short, to the point, dense with insight yet highly readable. Get Low by Jack Wisdom is impressive…

…and disappointing.

Here is what I mean. The book presents a wonderfully refreshing take on Christian thinking and theology. Jack knows his stuff, too. He’s as wonky as they come but has the ability to explain complex ideas and analysis to the layman in an entertaining way.

More than that, he gets the message of the Christian gospel right, which is rare, I’ve found. Most believers I know pay a little bit of attention in church, kinda sorta read the Bible (the good parts), and gleefully and wantonly mix religion, pop-psychology, and politics into an unappetizing stew of Christo-gumbo that, if taken in large doses, will double you over with exegetical cramps.

Jack’s tome presents a welcome relief from such pseudofaith-induced intellectual trauma. He calmly and clearly lays out the Christian gospel as a message of revolutionary, even subversive, love. Christian faith, properly understood, cannot be the caricature represented by Joel Osteen-like high intensity toothy grins plastered on billboards, nor the namby-pamby flightiness I’ve heard some atheists describe. The Christian life is a gritty, down-in-the-dirt struggle between Good and Evil. Jack gets that and insists upon our collective acknowledgement of such.

Get Low is a meditation on the implications of real Christian faith and its demand for humility. Jack correctly asserts pride lies at the root of all sins, and he proceeds to identify the various disguises in which pride manifests itself in our lives. In this respect, reading Jack’s dissertation here is like having a master player in the card game Bullshit! calling one’s every arrogant bluff.

But here is the problem. At its heart, humility as formulated in Get Low is not about truth and does not allow for sober judgment. Assuming the Christian point of view for the moment, Jack rightly calls for believers to humble themselves before God, to submit to His will, His goodness, and His love. I get that. Such submission comes at a price, however.

A Christian can humbly doubt, can really struggle with whether God is there or whether He is good. There can be times of pain and suffering and despair. Humble spiritual dehydration is allowed. But no one can ever humbly conclude that the Christian God is made up. Not only is that not a humble conclusion to draw, it is necessarily a prideful one. These are the only two options Jack’s formulation allows: humility or pride.

Can we not admit of the possibility that God and all of His trappings — the doctrines, the claims of miracles, the personal sense that He has spoken to us and loves us — are the result of a collective and pervasive delusion? Is it not even in the realm of what could be that one looks at this world anew and honestly, soberly, and as objectively as imaginable concludes that God is not there?

In Get Low, the answer is no. There is no third way. I cannot refuse to submit to God and also be humble. And if I cannot be humble I must be prideful. There is no chance that I could simply be…right.

Throughout the book Jack asserts that several tasks are impossible. For example, the atheist (or Muslim or Jain or agnostic or other non-Christian):

  • Cannot avoid selfish ambition or consider others more important than oneself (Loc. 1277);
  • Cannot put his wife’s interests ahead of his own (Loc. 1644); and
  • Cannot overcome enmity with the power of sacrificial love (Loc. 2978).

Further, he unfortunately erects a straw man to represent atheists: the “proud doubters, professional skeptics, and celebrity atheists who write best-selling books to proselytize wavering theists and agnostics.” (Loc. 1151.) Drawing on a quote from Nica Lalli (someone with whom I am unfamiliar), Jack slams Lalli for suggesting that she is not 100% certain that there is no god. More specifically, he excoriates her for suggesting that the sliver of doubt she has about there being no god helps her to maintain humility and avoid arrogance. My dear friend unbecomingly asserts that Lalli is “commending herself for having just enough uncertainty (‘a tiny wedge of doubt’) to keep from being arrogant and insufferable.” (Loc. 1161.)

He goes one step farther down the same path. Buried in an endnote, Jack refers to Peter Hitchens, brother of the late Christopher Hitchens (a well-known atheist), who apparently “contends that atheists are not dispassionate empiricists who are simply evaluating the evidence with rational, unsentimental objectivity.” (Loc. 1226.)

With that brief treatment, my friend leaves atheism behind, never fully asserting that all such people are arrogant and misguided SOBs, but certainly creating the impression that they are. This is wholly unfair. 

It would be like noting Jack’s statement in the introduction…

I am equally convinced the way to redeem every aspect of life is the way of humility. In this book, I am trying to make that case.

    I am not an expert on the topic. In fact, the folks who know me best will testify that I am uniquely unqualified to write about humility. In spite of that— or maybe because of that— I have written this collection of essays for proud people who are called to imitate a humble King. (Loc. 194-198).

…and accusing him of false modesty. After all, who would write on the topic of humility and say somewhere in the introduction something like the following?

I am an expert on this topic. In fact, the folks who know me best will testify that I am uniquely qualified to write about humility.

It would be unfair of me to suggest that Jack is being disingenuous when he asserts his lack of qualifications simply because he cannot say anything else. I know Jack. I can testify to two things: He is prideful, and he is being mostly honest and straightforward when he tells you he is not an expert on the topic. He is an intellectual expert on the matter, but living it out is where the challenge lies for him, as it does for anyone who attempts the humble life.

I believe I should treat Jack fairly and that in the preceding paragraph I have. My beef with him is how he does not treat “celebrity atheists” — and by extension all atheists — with the same grace and fairness. Indeed, I would not be out of bounds to suggest he rather arrogantly dismisses them all.

This beef reaches beyond the mere personal insult and goes to the larger point of the book, which is why I’m spending time here. I suggest that there is, in fact, a third option for a person to choose. We need not humble ourselves before the Christian God nor arrogantly dismiss Him. We need not choose between exercising humility as a matter of course or bearing ourselves with arrogance. We can, I contend, simply Get Right.

By Get Right, I mean this. We can exercise sober judgment. We can fairly evaluate the faith, the truth claims, and the scripture of Christianity (or Islam et al.), and we can, without pride or submission, decide for ourselves whether they are correct. Indeed, the possibility that they are wrong in some, most, or all respects is distinctly admitted in my view of things. We can, as Lalli apparently has, evaluate the evidence for god and reject it with near (but not total) certainty, and this rejection need not be arrogant in any way. It can simply be the result of a fair analysis of the proposition.

To Get Right one must always be willing to change one’s mind. Always! This is enormously hard to do. We are human, after all. But that does not mean we have to pretend that we are more lowly and incapable than we are.

There is much more I could say on the topic of Christian humility, and about Get Low. For now, know this. For any Christian wanting to better understand his faith, Get Low is a master stroke. But it unfortunately fails in one important respect: Jack is not fair in his treatment of those who, like me, have evaluated the faith in as fair a way as subjectively possible and found it wanting. I reject the implicit stain on my character, as others who may share my perspective should as well.

Jack Wisdom is as fine a person as you will find. I write this with love and respect for who he is and for his courage and skill in writing a book that I believe, on the whole, the Christian community needs.

 

Reference:

Wisdom, Jack (2013-03-11). Get Low: Reflections on Pride and Humility. Whitecaps Media. Kindle Edition.

(Note: The references are to the Kindle edition location numbers.)

Inquisitive

My boy started quite the conversation with me yesterday. It came out of nowhere, just as were leaving the house to go for an evening stroll on the beach.

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“Why do some people believe in God?”

“Well,” I hesitated, searching for the right way to explain this to a seven year old, “people tend to see patterns even when none exist. So, for example, imagine you and I are having a conversation. You say something to me and then I get mad. Really mad. And right at that moment lightning strikes. You might think that I caused the lightning. And then imagine that the same thing happened again. You would have even more reason to believe that I control the lightning, even though I had nothing to do with it. You might see me as a ‘god’ of some kind.

“People tend to see patterns like this and think there must be a mind behind these kinds of coincidences. They think that ‘god’ or whatever is controlling events.”

“Oh,” he said. We left the house and drove to the beach. I figured he had lost interest by now. But as we walked along the alleyway that serves as a beach access, he started up again.

“One time when we were in San Diego on the beach, Pops [his grandfather] told me that God created everything, and I pointed at some guys who were building houses and said, ‘Those too?’ and he said, ‘Well maybe not everything.'”

“Yeah,” I replied, not sure how much he wanted to keep talking about this subject.

“Did you ever believe in God?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Well, because some really smart people that I respected convinced me there was a god.”

“Why don’t you believe any more?”

“Over time it just didn’t make sense. They say that God is all powerful and good. But then bad things happen. He can’t be both all powerful and good if bad things happen. It just doesn’t make sense.”

“Yeah, it doesn’t make sense to me either,” he agreed. “You know what I don’t get? How could something come out of nothing? I think that nothing can’t be something because then it wouldn’t be nothing.”

“I’m with you, kid. You’ve just hit on one of the great mysteries of life. The current best theory we have for how everything started is the Big Bang Theory. That says that all stuff, the earth, the sun, all the galaxies, everything, was shrunken down into one very very tiny dot. And then it exploded. Who knows why or how. So some people say that God must have been there all along to make the Big Bang happen. Other people say that that’s just punting because it raises the question, How did God get there in the first place? The answer people give is that God is eternal, he was always there. But that could also be the answer without God — stuff, whatever, was always there and then the Big Bang happened. We don’t know why or how, really.”

Remarkably, my son’s attention span hadn’t reached its limit. This surprised me to no end.

“I just don’t get how something could come out of nothing. That’s just…I just don’t get it.”

“Me either.”

He repeated this several times, really perplexed by it, and then…

“Hey, Dad, let’s throw sand on this crab!”

——–

The kid had really struggled with the hard questions. In my recitation above I’ve barely changed the actual dialog we had last night. I was amazed at how articulate this kid was on the deep questions of life. (He is not generally…ah…shall we say, this focused on…well, anything.)

There are a lot of morons out there, on all sides of all issues (e.g. atheist morons, Christian morons). But somehow this conversation gave me a good measure of hope in my boy that maybe, just maybe, he won’t grow up to be one of them.

Relief

From time to time it hits me just how relieved I am to have relinquished faith.

My lovely bride and I were chatting about this the other day. For years she was plagued by guilt. She tried everything she could think of to assuage, dispel, or otherwise properly deal with such guilt.

It wasn’t guilt about anything in particular, mind you. She had committed no crime, sullied no character. Guilt just kind of hung in the air, like a fog.

For me, pride and discipline comprised my personal cats-‘o-nine-tails. I beat myself up over the continuing presence of these scourges on my character, my failure to meet the humility modeled by and demanded by the Savior.

Unlike my bride, I felt like I gained some ground in my personal struggles. She, unfortunately, remained plagued as ever.

And then…

And then we discovered the awful truth about Jesus, about religion. Jesus was just a guy (and maybe not even that; some say he may never have actually existed). Religion is just a man-made fill-in-the-gaps type of mental and cultural device. The Bible is just an old book, and not a particularly wonderful one at that. So we chucked god.

And, God!, does that feel good! The Mrs. has not felt guilty hardly at all since then. My pride and discipline issues are less imposing, less concerning than they were before.

The relief we both feel, seven years hence, is hard to overstate. Like anything, we have adapted to our new normal and so have been desensitized to it. But like grief at a loved one lost, or laughter at the memory of an old joke, or melancholy about times past, every now and then the relief sweeps over me anew. And I am reminded of the great liberation that comes from releasing (and being released from) faith.

And it is good.

New Clothes

Driving in the car the other day, my lovely bride happened to ask my seven year old son whether he knew what Easter was. The holiday was fast approaching and it seemed appropriate to have a “good parent” moment and provide the boy with some context.

“It’s the bunny, right?”

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Ah. Well, not exactly. She proceeded to inform the boy about the Christian belief that Jesus was crucified on a Friday, died, was buried, and then rose again on Sunday. Upon relating this to me, she observed, “When I was telling him about Easter it occurred to me how crazy and ridiculous this story is.” She had never really thought about it too much.

I think that happens to us when we’re growing up. If you’re steeped in a particular culture, you tend to just accept certain things, no matter their absurdity or strangeness. That’s because they are not strange; they’re familiar, like your mom’s china pattern or the wallpaper in that one room of your grandparents’ house.

So many of our beliefs and traditions just make up the cosmic background of our lives. We do not question them because they are just there.

Later, at the lunch table, we talked about my bride’s attempt at retelling the Easter story, which prompted to me to ask both kids what they knew. Daughter, nine, and son both said they didn’t really get what it was about.

I retold the story. Here’s approximately how it went down:

Me: “Jesus, whom Christians believed to be God, was crucified, which means killed by a particular kind of torture, on a Friday.”

Son: “Jesus…the god-man?”

Me: “Yes.”

Daughter: “Well sort of.”

Me: “Christians believe he was fully God and fully man.”

Daughter: “Whaaaaat?”

Son: “How could he be God and man?”

Me: “I don’t know. Anyway, when he died on Friday, he went to Hell. Hell is not thought of as a physical place; it’s a spiritual place. It means separated from God.”

Daughter: “Wait, was he split in half?”

Me (flummoxed): “Um…I don’t know.”

Daughter: “If he was God but then was separated from God…what…?”

Son: “Yeah, how could he be God and separ-…”

Me: “I don’t know. Anyway, three days later, on Sunday, he rose from the dead and then appeared to several people over the course of thirty days or so.”

[We digressed into a side conversation about the Hebrew conception of “three days” wherein 72 hours gets cut down to, say, 36 hours.]

Me: “At the end of the thirty days, he was taken up directly to Heaven.”

Daughter: “Where’s Heaven?”

Me: “Well, like I said, just like Hell, Heaven isn’t a physical place. It’s a spiritual place. It means communion with God or being with God.”

Daughter: “Where did his body go?”

Me: “He was taken up directly to Heaven. He didn’t leave a body behind.”

Daughter: “But I thought Heaven wasn’t a physical place.”

Me: “That’s what Christians believe.”

Daughter and Son: [Confused looks remain on their faces.]

At the outset, I’ll grant that I’m giving my children a biased and piecemeal presentation of “the gospel.” However, in seventeen years of being a committed, hard-core, studious Christian, I never thought about the blatantly obvious things that my goofy kids did.

How could Jesus, if he was God, also be separated from God? This doesn’t pass any kind of smell test. At all. Think about it. How awful is it for you to be away from your kids or your parents for a day and a half? Maybe you miss them, but it’s bearable.

That’s how long Jesus was away from his father (and the Holy Spirit, to boot!), who is also himself. In all the descriptions of Hell that I’ve heard, it is supposed to be an awful, horrible state of existence, which awfulness is a result of separation from God. But how terrible could it be if you knew that it was going to end in a day and half anyway? After all, aren’t we already in a state of Hell here on Earth if we do not believe in God? We’re separated from Him, right? Yet I find life quite bearable, enjoyable, even.

Plus, how could Jesus still be Jesus and not Jesus? That is, how could he be God and not God? This is basic logic: You cannot be both A and not A, unless you’re subject to the U.S. Tax Code.

Further, in the modern Christian conception of Hell as a spiritual place, what DID happen to Jesus’ body? Did it dematerialize? Did it travel through the stratosphere, swing around the Moon, and shoot off through the Oort Cloud? And why would it need to do this anyway, if Heaven is a spiritual place? We all leave our bodies behind when we go to Heaven or Hell, why couldn’t Jesus?

Children. They provide such a refreshing perspective, don’t they?

The Emperor, it seems, has no new clothes.