Blame God

So I’m talking with a friend of mine and he says something like, “God has a good thing going for him.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Well,” he replies, “Who else do you know that gets thanks and praise for all the good things he supposedly does, but cops none of the blame or criticism for the bad things which, surprisingly, also happen on his watch?”

My brain seems to draw from somewhere deep in my subconscious, Evangelical past and (embarrassingly) comes out with something along the lines of, “You can’t blame God for what humanity has brought upon itself by its continued rejection of God. After all, God has given us freewill and, if we choose to go against his laws, there will be consequences.”

(I cringe now to think there could have ever been a day when I said such things; after all, this is exactly how loonies such as Pat Robertson and Jim Bakker portray their God and his interaction with ‘dirty rotten sinners’.)

My friend (let’s call him Bob) continues.

“Yeah, but you believe God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and present everywhere, right?”

I nod my head in agreement.

“And yet, in spite of the fact that God could stop the tsunami, cripple the 9/11 hijackers, bring the Pakistani earthquake below 1 on the scale, heal my mum of cancer and turn back that massive hurricane, he didn’t.”

I respond: “God can’t just arbitrarily interfere with the course of nature and, in the case of the hijackers, he won’t overrule the free will of human beings to decide to do evil.” (My response is a little weak, given that I catch myself partway trying to justify God’s actions, or kinda trying to place limits on The Almighty–and feel somewhat guilty for doing this.)

Bob isn’t satisfied with this canned, classic textbook answer.

“If you were able,” he says, lifting a semi-accusing finger to my face, “to save your child from certain death by running out in the street and grabbing him, pulling him to safety before the truck roared past, you would, wouldn’t you?”

The way he asked this question made me wonder if Bob thought I was some sort of monster.

“Of course I would; he’s my kid. I would never allow him to be harmed.”

I noticed that smug, “gotcha” look come across Bob’s face. I instantly knew where this conversation was headed.

“Yet, God—whom you say loves all of us as a father loves his children—will allow his children to go through hell, to lose family members, their health, their homes, their livelihood, and even their own lives in disasters that he himself could have stopped.”

“Yeah, but . . .” (I sensed I was starting to sound like a whining 3rd-grader) “. . . but God can’t change the natural course of things. He’s put laws in place that govern the weather, the earth and human beings. He can’t just override these laws.”

Bob laughed. “Seriously, you should listen to yourself! You sound like you’re trying to convince yourself that your God isn’t as big or powerful or loving as you’ve been led to believe. So would you say to your son when he gets hit by that truck, ‘That’s the consequence of not obeying my rule of staying in our yard’?”

He had a point. I was beginning to realise that I had created a wonderful, rather small box to contain my God. I had assumed that those who were supposed to know all about God (theologians, pastors, Sunday School teachers) were right when they taught me this catechistic auto-response, that God allowed such happenings because he couldn’t go against his natural laws and couldn’t and wouldn’t interfere with humanity’s free will.

But this put God in a predicament because throughout the Bible (it is said) he did intervene, did interfere and did overrule. If the Bible is fact, then God could choose to step down out of heaven and come to our aid (Isn’t it funny how we placed him “up there” when we say that he is everywhere? But then, it’s also humorous when we anthropomorphise God to be a male when ‘he’ is not even human. But I digress.) God could choose to stop the winds and the waves, the wars, befuddle hijackers and terrorists, or heal the young mother of her cancer.

But.

God.

Doesn’t.

Why not?

I know this has led many people just like my friend Bob to stop believing there is a God, or at least a personal, loving, interacting Deity. I can understand their frustration and the incoherence of much of what religion portrays God to be.

I am also aware of the multitude of books, articles and talks that have been published on this problem of human suffering. Most de-converted Christians would say this is the one big question that caused them to rethink the whole idea of the existence of God.

Personally, I continually try to reconcile this dichotomy in my own mind. While at one time this had caused me great concern and anxiety, I now am now beginning to see how I can live with the tension as many before me have also learned.

 

Despite this, I take a page from the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, the legend of Job, from David’s psalms of lament, and from Ecclesiastes and don’t feel in the least bit conflicted when I cry out in anger to God, “Why?” when my words sound more accusing than trusting, when I place the blame solely and completely on Him who, tradition tells us, is without blame.

And I believe that God welcomes my dissent. I think it’s this honest, confrontational, letting loose that God expects from his children. As Rob puts it, God wants us to rip open our rib cage and let our heart out. It’s in these moments of openness and vulnerability that we are changed and we begin to see things framed in a new consciousness, a new understanding and a deeper relationship with the Divine.

This is not an easy answer. There is no such thing. As long as we have apparent inconsistencies, we will struggle to understand God or conceptualise Deity. We may change our way of seeing things. Hell, we may even decide it’s easier not to believe.

Regardless of what we choose to do, I’m sure God is more generous, and more loving than we could comprehend anyhow, and would still do all he or she could to get that message across to us, even if it’s in the most unlikely of sources, like Bob.

Where we go Wrong

crochety-old-mr-gruff-tiger-lilly-jan-28“Watch out for them. They will corrupt your mind. They have no sense of morality or accountability. They do whatever they want and most of what they do is evil and an abomination to God.”

This is the message I heard from the authority figures in my life as I was growing up. Being atheist immediately placed a person in the same category as paedophiles, wife-beaters, and mass murderers. They were depicted as angry, mean and downright unfriendly. (The leaflet shown above is just one of the many I have seen that were used to teach us that atheists are evil, mean, uneducated, corrupting and immoral influences and we should avoid them at any cost.)

So imagine my surprise to find out that non-belief doesn’t make you a Grinch, or even put you on the Most Wanted list! The fact that someone such as this could be friendly? Really? But they don’t have Jesus in their heart. They don’t read the Bible. They wouldn’t know how to be nice. Right?

How wrong I was.

Not only do they embrace such mantras as “Live better. Help often. Wonder more,*” but they give blood, volunteer at the soup kitchen, drive for Meals-on-wheels, run charities, volunteer for humanitarian causes and care deeply about many of the same things I care about. Some of them I have the privilege as counting as good friends and valued associates.

That’s probably why I was drawn to The Friendly Atheist website and then podcast by Hemant Mehta. Hemant started this venture after selling his soul on eBay and then writing a blog and a book about it. He has no problem having conversations with Christians and non-believers alike and learning from anyone with something of value to say. I find his method intriguing and insights compelling.

Reading his book I Sold My Soul on eBay, I was struck by someone who was open-minded and willing to admit that he didn’t know it all. He put that which he didn’t believe existed, his soul, up for sale and not only took bids on it, but agreed that, for every $10 raised, he would visit one religious service. The winning bidder, John Henson, compiled a list of all the churches he wanted Hemant to visit and then asked that he write blog posts about these churches and what he learned about Christianity through his interaction with these people of faith.

These blog posts became the book.

He experienced some crazy stuff, was amazed by other committed and caring folk (I guess we aren’t the only ones who pigeonhole whole groups of people), and was able to examine Christian worship from a purely objective point of view.

He admitted that many things the Church in general has gotten right, though he tends to qualify this by emphasising that his sample set was a small proportion of Christianity as a whole, and mostly focused around the Midwest U.S.

He also sees a whole lot that we have gotten wrong, including the idea that all atheists are sad, angry and have experienced a God-centred trauma at some point in their20130221-105105 life (which is essentially the theme of the insensitive, ignorant and grossly inaccurate screenplay of the movie God is Not Dead.)

The truth is, we as professing Christians (at least a fair percentage of us) are also angry, mean-spirited, immoral and hateful people. Our tradition has us believing in a god who throws people who have never been given a chance to repent into a place where they will be roasted forever, who commanded horrific acts of genocide, even presiding over the intentional elimination of every man, woman, child and creature on the planet at one point in what many believe to be ‘history.’ I intentionally use the word ‘god’ because this god is small, tribal, angry, and manipulative. The God I believe that is shown in Jesus is a God of love, peace, joy, inclusion and acceptance. This is a God whose character I cannot reconcile with the god of the Hebrew patriarchs. In this, and many other areas, I must admit that I, too, don’t have all the answers.

So I defer to kindness, peace, hope, love–all traits that good-hearted people of both atheist and theist positions embrace. I choose to live in harmony with my non-believing brothers and sisters. I choose not to have an agenda of persuasion whenever I am with them. I (and I think God is with me on this because, as you know from my previous posts, God thinks like me) would rather see a kind atheist than a mean Christian. 

_________

* The mantra of a growing popular humanist movement, The Sunday Assembly, that replaces the church service with an uplifting secular meeting, held on Sundays.

Nobody Won

Bill-Nye-vs.-Ken-Ham-Debate_f_improf_645x254One would have to be living under a rock not to have heard about the much-publicised debate in the U.S. between Bill Nye (can I not resist adding, “The Science Guy” after that?) and Ken Ham (Answers in Genesis) held February 4th in Kentucky. Well, OK. If you don’t live in North America and you’re not either an Evangelical or Fundamentalist Christian, or an atheist, you possibly don’t have a clue what I’m talking about.

But, nonetheless, it happened. “Ham on Nye” as it has become known.

There are numerous clips on YouTube and well past hundreds of search results on Google that will show you anything you wish to know about this event.

But, for me, the sound bites say it all. The answer to the question, “What would it take to change your mind?” was, according to Nye: “A single piece of solid evidence.” According to Ham: Nothing. That’s right. Nothing. Since the Bible is obviously literally (according to Ham’s interpretation of it) fully accurate in Science and History, he needs no other evidence. Nothing will change his mind that the earth is less than 10,000 years old and created in 7 literal 24-hour days (albeit, several of those days did not have the time-telling benefit of the sun–go figure!).

How does he know the earth is less than 10,000 years old? He’s done his Math and added up the generations found in the Bible’s genealogies. This is what he calls the “historical science” method. Since his literal understanding of the Bible is correct in all matters historical, then so is his guess of the earth’s age.

And here’s where the debate is unwinnable: the basic underlying world-views of these two men couldn’t be further opposed to each other.

To those of fundamentalist ilk, Ham was the hero, standing for the truth, defending the faith, and holding fast to sound doctrine and a literal reading of Genesis 1 against the tide of the Satanic theory of evolution.

To atheists and more progressive Christians, Bill Nye won with his solid evidence and logic, his proven hypotheses and superior intellect. To the atheist, the foundation of Ken Ham’s argument was as shaky as that of a flooded beach: how could one trust a book written by men of an ancient tribal culture (see *Note) with the aim of proving their deity was superior to those in the lands around them? After all, every culture has its own creation myths.

To the more progressive Christian, while claiming the sacred text to be inspired by God, it is seen to be, still, as bearing the indelible imprint of humanity with all its tendencies to interpretation in the light of current culture and the desire to prove tribal superiority. Progressives care not so much about the “how” of the universe’s origin as much as the “why” and the “what does this mean for us now?” So, while this event aroused cursorily, it held no real sense of consequence.

In the days following, source after source declared Bill Nye as the hands-down winner (even Christianity Today’s poll showed a 9-1 lead). However, in my opinion, “Ham on Nye” proved to be a fizzer, a debate which was more of a publicity stunt to showcase Ham’s Creationist exhibit and the organisation he has created to promote his own views.

Surely the church has learned from its own dealings with scientists such as Galileo or Copernicus. Surely they cannot take as historical fact a creation account that was written from the perspective of a flat earth, a fixed ‘dome’ (or firmament) and a sun, moon and stars that orbited over and under this flat earth. But this variant of the Christian Religion still prefers to remain staunchly opposed to proven scientific theory and overwhelming evidence. Its adherents see no need for science and evidence except when it bolsters their own interpretations of the world. The simplistic answers to the complex questions of origins are comical and, as one blogger states, takes the Jesus Movement back ten steps in its respectability and relevance.

Unfortunately, the wide brush of dogmatism has splattered the rest of Christianity with its ignorance and stubborn refusal to consider the evidence thousands of earnest scientists have uncovered since the dark ages.

Nobody won. Unless, of course, we have learned that debating those who choose to remain in the dark ages is futile, in which case good sense has won the day.

____________

*Note: This is a huge flaw in reasoning that I see in many creationist writings: they assume the reader will accept “The Bible says” as authoritative evidence when, in fact, many would see ‘The Good Book’ as having no more authority than a Superman comic. Even when I accepted their teachings, I cringed every time I read their work because I knew it would carry absolutely no authority in the secular world. They are indeed preaching to the choir.

Atheist Church?

Is this the world’s first atheist church? Looking everything like a normal Christian church service–apart from the small detail that God was not mentioned–this ‘church’ now holds two services a month with people being turned away at the door. News Limited papers carried this story recently:

Officially named The Sunday Assembly, the church was the brainchild of Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, two comedians who suspected there might be an appetite for atheist gatherings that borrowed a few aspects of religious worship.

790179-the-sunday-assemblyHeld in an airy, ramshackle former church in north London, their quirky monthly meetings combine music, speeches and moral pondering with large doses of humour.

“There’s so much about Church that has nothing to do with God – it’s about meeting people, it’s about thinking about improving your life,” said Jones, a gregarious 32-year-old with a bushy beard and a laugh like a thunderclap.

 The Sunday Assembly’s central tenets are to “help often, live better and wonder more” – themes that would not be out of keeping with the teachings of any major world religion.

At a recent Sunday service, which had a volunteering theme, songs included Help by the Beatles and Holding Out For A Hero by Bonnie Tyler.

The “sermon” was given by the founder of an education charity, while in a section called Pippa Is Trying Her Best, Evans had the congregation in stitches as she reported on her attempts at voluntary work.

The service ended with big cheers and – this is Britain, after all – shouts of “Who would like a cup of tea?”

I don’t know about you, but I would love to attend such a church. Sure, they don’t talk about God, and they don’t claim any particular set of beliefs except a conviction that they can and should work to make their world a better place. As the journalist seems to ask, ‘Isn’t this what church is supposed to be about anyway?’

Pete Rollins, in his book, The Orthodox Heretic, tells a story about a man who lost his faith but, in this loss, found his sense of compassion and justice awakened and, in the end, Rollins poses the seemingly antithetical question: Is it better to say you believe in God and not do what God asks, or to deny the faith yet live a life congruent with God’s love and grace?

In this I seem to hear the echo of Jesus, as he came to the conclusion of the story about the good Samaritan: ‘Go and do likewise.’

Perhaps Christianity–perhaps we--are taking so seriously our beliefs, structures, and services, and need to, in a sense, forget our faith and just do good.

Maybe singing Help on Sunday morning would be a good start.

Anyone with me?

Atheish

Naked Pastor a.k.a. David Hayward draws cartoons. Some of his cartoons are downright hilarious. Most say things that perhaps I have wanted to say for a long time but can’t find the words–he findfs them . . . and draws them.

“I claim that believers and atheists share a deeper union than their disagreements.” (www.nakedpastor.com)

Many well-meaning Christian folk have “written off” David because of the forthright expression of what he believes to be true. In an interview with Becky Garrison (author of Jesus Died for This?: read about this book in Next Wave), he talks about his present understanding of religion and atheism and how it relates to his work. In particular, two responses struck me as being very insightful of a growing unease among those who formerly would have aligned themselves with Christianity:

I think there are a lot of people out there who recognize that the problem is not belief. There’s millions of gods and millions of religions. People are becoming more and more skeptical signing on to any certain belief system. They want to open the debate and have a genuine discussion. That means coming into the forum with a willingness to hold on to your beliefs, thoughts and ideologies loosely in order to be able to converse with other people. Maybe the best debate is when you allow doubt or mystery to be a greater component of your ideology or belief system. . . .

I struggle with the whole religious language because I’ve come to the conclusion that we use language to control our worlds and realities. When people ask me questions about who I am and what I believe, it’s their attempt to comprehend and grasp me intellectually and then plug me into some kind of a hole that makes them feel comfortable. (Read more here.)

I know I label people, and tend to be quite critical of them based on the pigeonhole I’ve put them in. A friend recently reminded me that people change–that I was once just like the one I was attempting to discredit. It’s far easier for me to slap a tag on to someone than to see them as a fellow human being with similar experiences, joys, struggles, feelings to mine. This is no more clear than the way Christians have dealt with their polar opposite–atheists.

But, as it is more often than not, we fear what we do not understand. In reality, many of us are “Atheish” to some degree. While claiming to believe in God, and saying the right words to back up our profession, we live in a way that often denies the existence of said Divine Being. This may be evident be in the way we fail to love one another fully, or in the way we judge people without ever trying to understand them, or in the way we worship things above God, or in the way we deny basic human rights to certain people simply because they don’t have the right paperwork. . .  The truth is the vast majority of atheists excel us in love and kindness.

So let’s get real and admit our “atheishness” and get on with the adventure of living in this world together, getting to know each other, and loving one another: as Christians because we are following the example of Jesus the Christ, and as Christians and atheists because it’s just the right thing to do.

Wired for Belief in God?

In The Atlantic, reporter Jennie Rothenberg has written about the research of Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, who has written and spoken about the instinctive dualistic understanding of babies and infants and how this has been–and should be–considered in any studies of the human mind and religion.

Personally, I think the title of the post should have been “Wired for Belief in God” rather than limited to the topic of creationism. Yet, perhaps in the interests oif drawing more “hits” to its website, The Atlantic chose the latter.

Bloom takes note when his children, or any other children, wax philosophical about the body and the soul. As a rationalist and a self-declared atheist, he rejects all notions of spirits, deities, and the afterlife. As a researcher, however, he has discovered that children are predisposed to divide the world into two categories: the physical and the immaterial. Five-month-old babies show clear signs of understanding the basic properties of objects; for example, that they are solid, will fall if dropped, and do not spontaneously disappear. These infants also show signs of responding to and understanding the world of emotions and personal relations—recognizing familiar voices, for instance, and responding to happiness or fear. As Bloom puts it, these two sets of abilities “can be seen as akin to two distinct computers, running separate programs.”

With this kind of dual psychological wiring, he argues, it is no wonder that the majority of humans believe in the concept of souls as separate from bodies, which in turn leads to spirituality and faith in the afterlife. To Bloom, all religions everywhere are essentially variations on the same theme. He draws no real distinction between East and West, or between First-World and Third-World nations. What interests him is the human tendency to “see intention where only artifice or accident exists.” Unlike many of his fellow atheists, Bloom is not content to simply dismiss religious people as misguided. Instead, he questions why a belief in the divine dominates virtually every culture on earth.

In an interview, following the article, Professor Bloom is asked the question, “Why do you think it is that more philosophers and researchers haven’t explored whether humans are ‘wired’ from infancy to believe in God?”

It’s a good question. I think people on both sides of this aren’t paying enough attention to how our natural way of seeing the world affects our religion and faith. Take someone like Richard Dawkins, whom I respect a lot. I agree with him on the facts. But when he talks about people who are creationists, he says they’re either stupid, ignorant, or downright evil. His point of view is that there’s an excellent case for Darwinian theory, so if you don’t know about it, you’re ignorant; if you can’t understand it, you’re stupid; and if you know about it and you can understand it, but you tell people that creationism is the way to go, then you’re being evil.

The problem is, he’s not taking into account emotional and psychological facts about people. Dawkins doesn’t look enough at the role of human nature in why people hold these beliefs. If you want to effect change in how people think—which Dawkins definitely does, and I do, too—you have to have some understanding and sympathy for where they’re coming from. People who are creationists aren’t just morons.

Now I realise Bloom is an atheist and is approaching his subject from a non-believing perspective/worldview. In spite of this, what he has to say needs to be considered–as does all true scientific findings–in our own analysis of our world and human understanding. Read the entire article on The Atlantic‘s website here.

Book Burnout

I’m experiencing book burnout at the moment. I really enjoy reading, but need to do so in small doses at the moment. My system is a little overloaded.

The unfortunate fact is that there are some really great books out there at the moment and it’s tempting just to get onto the Book Depository or Amazon Kindle Store and get my hands on them. But I’ve got so much information going around in my head that my thought-train is threatening to de-rail.

Recently, I’ve been challenged greatly by Brian McLaren‘s Naked Spirituality and by Rob Bell‘s Love Wins. These two recent publications have joined Hugh Halter’s And: The Gathered and Scattered Church in giving me hope in what is possible for the Faith, Christianity and the Church at what many have called a crossroads in its existence.

Mike Foster’s Gracenomics inspired me to lean more towards mercy in my life and give people a second or third or fourth chance.  

Shane Hipps’ well-researched volume, Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith, shows how this marketing guru-turned-pastor sees the way our faith is faring, growing, changing amidst the onslaught of new technology at our disposal (I am still digesting this one).

I really enjoyed the way Pete Rollins underhandedly sparked my thinking in his collection of modern-day parables, The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales. What a great, creative gift of storytelling this man has been given!

Then there are a couple of books that are more challenging to read since they are written by people who do not share my same belief-branding: The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, and Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became one of America’s Leading Atheists by Dan Barker. I say “challenging to read” because sometimes what these men have written unsettles me, makes me squirm, and necessitates that I put the book down and do some further searching, study and praying. So many of the questions asked need to be asked–answered, re-phrased, discussed–not simply dismissed. The sad truth is both of these books contain truth, and sometimes address in very direct terms the deficiencies that pervade Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christianity today.

I have often heard the comment (from those with the best of intentions): “We shouldn’t be reading anything but the Bible,” or a variant, “We should only be reading books that are solidly based on Scripture” (what actually qualifies in this capacity usually are those books that agree with my own interpretations.)

While I see the value of not constantly surrounding oneself with “error,” it also must be said that we do ourselves no favour by blocking our ears and crying out “la la la” while others are raising genuine questions. We who claim to want to be like those of Berea who “searched the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so (Acts 17),” have much to answer for if we fail to understand the claims of those different to us so as to critically (Scripturally?) give a credible response.

And what McLaren has penned in A New Kind of Christianity and Ken Howard in Paradoxy: Creating Community Beyond Us and Them gives me hope that we can have meaningful dialogue–and find friendship–with those who differ from us.

Meanwhile, too much thinking is “doing my head in.” I’ve removed the half-read stacks of books next to my easy chair and on my bedside table. For now I need to sit back, draw some deep breaths, mull over some well-written words and ideas and pray.  I think I’ll be back in the library or on the ‘net before you know it. But, for the moment, I’m taking a little time out for sanity.