God, Suffering and Salvation

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I have complete sympathy for atheists and agnostics.  I’ve wrestled with questions my entire life and whether or not there is a God is always one of them.  But the one thing that I can’t understand is being angry about human suffering, from a rational basis, if God does not exist.  If there is no ultimate good, no greater purpose or meaning to life, on what basis do we make a moral judgment about suffering?

Okay, let’s back up a second.  I’m here at my local establishment drinking another Long Island, one of many since the death of Uriah, and it hasn’t given me an answer as to why he would die of cancer at twenty-four.  The medical diagnosis is simple enough.  He had cancer.  The aggressive kind.  It started with the lump on his ankle during boot camp.  I still have the picture on my phone taken out of morbid curiosity and never dreaming it was a death sentence.

Uriah and I, despite our difference in age, got along in a way that only cousins do.  He was like me.  We didn’t simply accept those easy cliché answers.  He was someone who was both determined and also full of doubts.  He was also the six-foot tall and better version of everything I ever was.  The best part was that I could claim some of his success for myself given that I had encouraged him to continue his college education, telling him that it was better to keep going than to live a life of regrets.

Watching Uriah sacrifice a leg only to have the cancer be found in his lungs a year later. It was a gut punch.  I think I stopped praying, at some point, because I just knew what the prognosis was.  

The hardest part, however, is that Uriah was not the first of his family that I had to carry out of the church on a cold winter day.  His parents had already lost one of their children to a seizure disorder.  His two other siblings are severely disabled and will need constant care.  Judy, his mom, is an incredible woman and has extraordinary faith.  Ed too has great strength of character.  And neither of them wastes any time feeling sorry for themselves despite losing the one healthy child they had to this terrible disease.

Where was God?

When my little Saniyah died, unexpectedly, it was a really big struggle for me.  It took me years to get my feet back under me again, spiritually and emotionally speaking, and I had both doubted my own faith along with the existence of a loving God.  The death of Uriah, along with my disappointments with those whom I put my trust in, and my long wait for Charlotte, have really tested me the past few years.  But, I have those who need me to be strong this time around and, for this reason, have had to push back against falling into despair again.

Nevertheless, I totally get why someone who has encountered suffering in a personal way is angry and denies the existence of God on this basis.  I mean why would this kind of pain and loss be allowed if there is an all-powerful good in the universe, right?  Why would God not intervene and stop this all rather than let us go through such terrible experiences?  It doesn’t make much sense, does it, that we should be left so lonely and struggling if God is good.

However, if we eliminate totally God from the equation, then we dismiss religious morality and must acknowledge that there is nothing written in the fabric of the universe that says our existence entitles us to good feelings.  I mean, as far as evolution goes, pain is more or less a survival tool, a feedback system to tell us what to avoid.  Feeling sad about the death of a friend or family member is, by this logic, a malfunction. 

In this harsh environment, where everything is out to kill us, why would we ever expect anything more than suffering?

The moral reasoning that makes this bad, if you are truly an atheist, is nothing other than a construct.  In terms of pure biology, it is good that fire hurts or we might burn our arms off.  That is pain for a very practical and utilitarian purpose.  Undeniably good if there is such a thing.  But what reasonable good is there in mourning those already dead?  No point in crying over spilled milk, right?  A totally rational being would simply move on to the next social resource and not be so attached or sentimental.

Being upset over suffering and death, if there is no God, is irrational.  And, if there is a God, like that of Christianity, then suffering and death are exactly what we’re promised in this life.  Sheesh.  Did you read the story of Jesus and how he was betrayed, beaten, and then unjustly killed in the most brutal fashion all as part of a redemptive plan?  If you actually believe in eternity then why be angry about a few years living out this rich narrative we call life? 

At the very least, how can we judge anything, especially a fictional character, on the basis of a moral standard that doesn’t exist? 

If there is no God, then there is no basis for morality either.  That too, including the idea that suffering is bad or pleasure is good, is entirely a construct.  Pain is good in some circumstances, it protects us from injury and causes us to change behavior in ways that are beneficial.  In other words, without the discomfort of hunger or thirst, we would not correctly prioritize our life.  Pleasure can be bad when it makes us eat too many donuts and become diabetic.  So how does one truly know that their own interpretation of these signals is the correct one?

From what I’ve observed in myself and in others, unbelief stems from disappointment when things do not go as expected.  It is about who is in control.  We can cling, in our own arrogance, to this notion that the universe should bend to our will.  Or realize that our own perceptions, based on senses which are not very reliable and a brain prone to making mistakes in judgment, are not infallible or ever actual truth.

The thing is we only ever know if suffering is good or bad if it is properly contextualized if we understand the end.  For example, feeling the burn of exercise is good pain because it is what accompanies muscle development and so we embrace this.  So what is the real context of our life?  To what end, or for what reason, did we become conscious?  What is behind this ‘accident’ if it is one? 

How do we contextualize our existence enough to judge what is good or bad?

If there is such a thing as an eternal reward, that would change the calculus, right?  It would mean that all pain can be gain, and all suffering can draw us closer as much as it drives us away because defining the moral character of any experience depends on the end.  I am willing to subject myself to many hardships if the reward is big enough.  No, this doesn’t take away the question of why we must go through here to get there.  But seeing past our immediate feelings is pretty much the only way to make progress.

Angry is a feeling, not a guide for life…

I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.

C.S. Lewis

People don’t walk away from Christianity for rational or scientific reasons.  Sure, they may guard their emotion-based unbelief behind a wall of post hoc justification.  But the reality is that they’re upset about something.  They had expectations and are now disappointed and acting as wounded people do.  It’s just strange that anyone at all Biblically literate would suddenly lose faith over our suffering when that’s literally the only we’re promised in this life.

What really doesn’t make any sense is why anyone would rather suffer with no hope at all of eternity.  If God is dead, then nihilism is the logical next stop and that life has no real meaning or purpose.  But the suffering does not go away simply because we’re angry at the giver of life.  No, it will only intensify and become a spiral of despair.  Our salvation is in our understanding that, smart as we may think we are, we’re truly quite ignorant and even our most ‘concrete’ reality is not real:

The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you. 

Werner Heisenberg

For those who don’t know who that is, Mr. Heisenberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, in 1932, for the creation of quantum mechanics.  Materialism, despite the zombie corpse of this thing staggering on, died with the discovery of things in defiance of this entirely too simplistic conception.  Sure, this kind of physics is well-beyond most, but it does support a notion of reality that requires a Universal Perceiver (as described in this article) and we could call that God.

So, if you’re actually serious about science, then the hard science of physics is the place to start and, with its mathematical origin and proofs, is much less likely to be clouded by emotion one way or another.  We can’t run from God.  But we may need to leave behind the baggage of our own misconceptions and learn the value of true repentance.  Maybe Uriah died, and went to his reward, so some of us would have our flawed thinking broken and seek our salvation in Him?

Maybe some of us are just too stubborn, or too needing of control being in our own hands, to admit we can’t save ourselves?

I’ll tell you this.  The universe, without God, is an infinitely dark and lonely place.  It is that starring abyss of which Friedrich Nietzsche warned, the existential horror H.P. Lovecraft describes.  Highly intelligent men, both of them, and understood the implications that come with true unbelief in God.  You will not escape your suffering simply by denying that the Divine all-powerful good exists.  No, rather you will just remain in that hell of your own creation.

Postscript: Questions Remain

I still grieve Uriah, as I do Saniyah, uncle Roland, and others that seem to have been taken before their time. I’ve long struggled against sources of trauma much more basic, the lack of unconditional love in the church that could make up for my shortcomings, and much of that is unresolved. At the time of my writing, the impossibility is something yet to be fulfilled. I do not have answers for any of this nor do I expect to. I’m not the arrogant kid who argued with his high school biology teacher, not a Bible-thumping fundamentalist at all, and yet must believe.

Believe It, Or Not?

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It’s been my thought for some time now and has become even more cemented in place over the past few years.  People will believe anything, especially if it fills their desire for meaning and purpose, even if it is ridiculous at face value.  But don’t mistake the for a shot at tradition.  Karl Marx said that religion is “the opiate of the masses” and yet his alternative drug produces delusion, rage and violence.  I’ll take Jesus and love over that any day of the week.

Sure, this quote could have some truth to it:

“Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers. It tells people to go out and stick their noses in other people’s business.”

E. J. Dionne Jr

But that same statement could be applied to almost every popular secular movement or established consensus.  Certainly not all, not even many, who believe in various narratives or theories are qualified experts.  Most have simply bought into a system and are riding the ideological bandwagon.  Good science is religious and organized, scientism is a cult and a way of silencing critical thinkers who are outside of the political mainstream.  I would certainly take Gospel tracts shoved in my face over social media censorship of my ‘wrongthink’ and higher taxes that won’t do anything to save the planet.

Call me a skeptic of everything, I just find it difficult subscribing to anything anymore, to me it is all easy-believism.  I mean, does it seriously change anything about my day-to-day life to believe in climate change or go to church?  Probably not.  People might make a symbolic sacrifice here and there.  However, for the most part the commitment doesn’t ever match the rhetoric.  The faithful aren’t walking on water nor are those who loudly proclaim their extreme consternation about the climate giving up their private jets or beach homes.

But it is much more basic than this, go ask people about who is the best president ever (or worst) and you’ll get completely opposite answers.  To some Trump was the guy who spoke to their own concerns and delivered, to others Biden is the guy who has restored the normalcy they craved.  Both sides can support their own perspective if given the chance.  Can they all be right?  Okay, so it is subjective, an opinion which man is better or worse, and yet we don’t agree on what is objective either.

I love talking to the most sincere people, the true believers, because they are so confident about what they say and it is enviable.  If you have had a bad experience with those who espouse their ideology, then that’s the rare exception, an anomaly, and is not the real version that is represented by them.  I’m just not like them.  I can’t help my skepticism of their beliefs.  I’m not very easily sold on their the basis of their sureness and claims alone, show me the undeniable evidence.  I do not fall for their conviction or consensus.

People do not seem to know where reality ends and their imagination begins.  Basically every narrative we create is a sort of fiction we create for ourselves.  We take the bits of data, very often distorted by our own flawed perception, and interpret it into a story that makes sense to us.  Systemic heightism, for example, describes something very real, is even quantifiable, and yet is also an overlay that doesn’t truly describe the truly complex picture.  What we accept or deny is often a product of our conditioning, social status and base desires.

The primitive communism that Marx used to fashion his ideas were as much a fabrication as any religious mythos.  Idealistic children likely subscribe to his theories for the same reason they love Disney fairy tales or Marvel comic book heroes.  Utopia ahead is a very strong motivator, in that we are very willing to make huge personal sacrifices when we believe that heaven awaits us.  And yet, as much as see the ‘faithful’ fall for obvious con-men, it makes every testimony questionable. 

The problem with my own unbelief is that I also believe this too.  I trust myself enough to mistrust.  Maybe my own ambivalence, and sometimes agnosticism, will make me miss the one truth in the sea of lies?  Still, I’m convinced my only ability to be sure of anything will have to be direct revelation from God, because I know too well that I’m a blind man in a world of full of blindness.  I’ll admit, this isn’t the most comforting or easy answer, but people believe many things that simply are not true.

What do I believe?

I believe what is most beneficial.  Maybe all of religious narrative is a fabrication and yet the real question is it useful, will it produce results that make the world better?  

The Christ I believe teaches me the value of delayed gratification.  In other words, when we invest in others, in faith, there is a chance that we make a friend and split the dividend of our peace.  In doing unto others, in love, there is a chance of solving our conflicts and ending hostilities.  Christianity, unlike various popular political systems, makes no utopian promise in this life, and yet it does help to push behavior in the right direction.

Unapologetic — What Is the Real Proof of Resurrection?

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True or false: The truth of the entire Gospel message depends on the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

I’m pretty certain that this is something that both Christians and non-Christians alike, after reading the Gospel accounts, would agree on.  If Jesus remained in the grave, a dead man, then doesn’t that make the entire account of these books a lie?

Recently I was invited to watch a lecture by Gary Habermas, a professor, historian Christian apologist, and author of various books about Jesus.  This after I had expressed a thought on how difficult this central claim of the Gospel would be to accept for a true skeptic.  Presumably, this recommendation was to help me bridge the gap between the claims and reasons to doubt them.

It seems reasonable that Habermas, an expert who believes, would come out with his best argument.  I mean, why waste an opportunity by holding the most solid proof of resurrection for a later date, right?

So, after watching, and taking notes, this is the outline of the arguments made along with my own counterpoints:

1) Most Contemporary Scholars Agree

Habermas spends considerable time talking about the changes in perspectives in the last 30-40 years in academic circles.  Apparently, most theologians are conservative now and he cites a skeptic who has warmed to even the claims that the disciples saw Jesus after his death on the cross.

However, the first thing I see, when someone uses “experts agree,” is an appeal to authority, which can be a logical fallacy if being used as evidence of a claim.  The fact that a majority of doctors had once believed that bloodletting was good therapy does not actually prove anything as far as the reliability of the practice.

So, to a critical thinker, this is a red flag.  He is starting with an appeal that is not a true argument for his further claims or at least not any more than “a consensus of scientists believe” disproves the outliers who disagree with their conclusions.

Everyone else is here, can’t be the wrong place…

But, more than that, the devil is always in the details and there is a bit of a bait and switch in his presentation.  The acceptance of any empty tomb is not the same thing as the real issue at hand which is resurrection.  It is possible that something else could explain the disappearance.  An empty tomb is not itself proof of the miraculous.

So what about this shift in thinking?  

Well, it is no secret that the Western world is falling into unbelief, Christianity is losing influence, and to the point that the ‘liberals’ may have long left the room.  In other words, it could be polarization, where nobody in the moderate middle ground survived, and thus only ‘conservatives’ see theology as being a worthwhile pursuit.

When something falls out of popular favor, like eugenics or white supremacy, then it is not really a big surprise when the hardliners are all that remains.

As a young person, I remember an Evolution versus Creation debate at a local university campus.  Such an event would not even be hosted by such an institution.  The 2014 Ken Ham vs Bill Nye rhetorical battle was held at the Creation Museum for a reason.  And it is not because either of these men are taken seriously or viewed as credible by the mainstream.

The point is most people may simply have moved on and the plurality of those remaining, the current theologians, are the fundamentalists.  There is much talk about the collapse of the center and this change Habermas mentions could be a product of that rather than anything related to the evidence.  

We also have a resurgence of flat earth theories (and the rise of Socialism on the other) which is certainly not an argument for those beliefs.  I guarantee more than 350 pages have been written in defense of Marxism and yet that does not convince me in any way, shape, or form that this ideology is the right way forward.  No, this does not prove or disprove anything as far as the resurrection, but why waste time on this kind of appeal if there’s better evidence?

2) Paul Is Generally Accepted, Even By Skeptics

Of all the writings in the New Testament those of Paul, the Apostle, are the most compelling and probably because this man (despite his own claims to the contrary) is so eloquent in his presentation.  I do find his focus on spiritual transformation to be more inviting than Mathew, Mark, or Luke.  And also his ability to be the odd one out as far as important matters of the faith.

He was a controversial figure, even in the early church, and often put on the defensive by those fighting to preserve the Jewish tradition from Gentile converts.  The account of his Damascus road encounter obviously convinced the right people of his change of heart.  And this acceptance is significant, it is at least an answer to those modern-day Pauline skeptics, namely feminists and contemporary Judaizers, who would have us believe he was in conflict with Jesus.

That said, both Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, and Muhammad claimed to have had dramatic encounters.  Both were committed to these revelations they had received and able to convince a large body of people of these claims.  It is always amazing to me how even a fundamentalist Christian can scoff at claims of angels delivering inerrant teachings or laugh off the flight to Medina on the Burāq, all the while accepting Biblical claims.

An undeniably beautiful image, right?

In short, I absolutely believe that Joseph Smith and Muhammad existed as real people.  I also have no reason to doubt that they did not believe what they claim to believe or even that they had some sort of trip and conversion experience.  But the truth of their existence and conviction does not mean their most extraordinary claims are actually reliable.  It does not matter how many people recorded their lives or believed what they said.

So, of course, a man named Paul existed, and perhaps he did have an encounter with an apparition.  I will accept that he was brought into the church.  There is no reason to take issue with any of this.  And I’m sure, if he was indeed out there killing Christians, this was a very welcomed development.  And yet there are also those raised Christian who become Muslims or atheists.  A conversion experience does not prove the extraordinary claims of a particular religion.

3) More Sources Than Alexander the Great

Habermas spends significant time in his lecture discussing the typical criteria for accepting a source.  There is more proof of Jesus, according to what is acceptable by normal academic standards, than there is of Alexander the Great.  Which is no surprise given that Jesus arrived on the scene later and spawned a religious movement through his teaching.

And yet while most everyone agrees that George Washington was a real person, that he crossed the Delaware river, this doesn’t mean that they must accept his ideological perspective or believe the mythology about the cherry tree.  Historic texts, like reporting of events in our own time, can be almost entirely fact, yet also be embellished or just incorrect on details.  

The biggest lies are always laced with facts.  It is how so many people are snookered.  A charlatan will make many credible claims to establish themselves.  They may have credentials and compelling stories.  The New York Times reporter, Walter Duranty, won a Pulitzer Prize for his glowing coverage of the Soviet Union.  That he included many verified facts in his accounts does not mean his writing was not deceptive.

The reality is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  If I were to list off my activities for the day, that I went to Dunkin for coffee, to the gym after that, and then broke Usain Bolt’s 100 meter sprint time, would finding independent verification of the first two claims bolster the last claim that I’m now the fastest man alive?

Most of the Bible being reliable does not mean every claim being made is true.  Being correct on a million mundane facts does not prove any of the most extraordinary claims contained.  No, it does not even suggest we should be less skeptical.  Maybe this makes some of us uncomfortable, but this is a normal burden of proof that we place on those who are outside of our own belief system, why not use the same standard for ourselves?

The big difference between Jesus and other historical figures is that nobody is telling me to devote my life to Alexander the Great.  It is one thing to believe that Abraham Lincoln existed as a real person and a significant figure, and quite another to say that he resurrected from the dead and ought to be worshipped as God.

4) We Can Trace the Narrative Back

Most of the New Testament was written down long after the events took place, this is something generally agreed on by all sides, and Habermas does have an interesting response for those who would use this as a basis for skepticism.  This, I believe, is where a general consensus is good enough.  It is silly to argue that Jesus did not exist or that the narrative was entirely fabricated well after the fact.

Close is not the same as complete. Not even close.

And yet, again, this tracing narrative back, using catchy phrases to suggest that these things had been established early and then were passed along made me think of modern memes or protest chants that are created in response to real events.

Michael Brown, for example, was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.  Soon a phase, “hands up, don’t shoot,” became the rallying cry and is a short version of this idea that Brown was gunned down while simply trying to surrender.  However, both a St Louis County grand jury and a US Department of Justice investigation cleared the officer of wrongdoing, the actual evidence points to the teen being in a physical altercation with the officer, and the catchy chants, therefore, are not an accurate representation no matter how popular.

The thing is, if we can’t get things right even days after the actual event, does gap or no gap matter? 

It really does not.

5) Why Die For A Lie?

Joan of Arc was an extraordinary young woman.  She managed to inspire her people to fight and is a wonderful icon of faith and courage.  But eventually, she fell into the hands of the English, who had every reason to hate her guts, and they put her on trial for ‘heretical’ exploits.  There is every indication that she was cooperative to the point that there was no justification for her execution and had likely been forced to violate the terms so they could kill her.

The martyrdom of the disciples of Jesus is something many Christian apologists tout as being hard evidence of the resurrection.  As in who would die for something that they know is a lie?  And this is indeed is proof of the commitment that these men had made to the Gospel message.

But let’s consider what happened to the Millerite movement when their prophecies about the Second Coming proved to be false.  Did they give up their delusion or even entirely reject the teachers that had misled them?  Some did.  But, as with Harold Camping, who spiritualized the prediction post hoc rather than admit being wrong, this is what is now the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.

So why do people remain committed to something despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary from an outsider’s perspective?  

It is this little thing called confirmation bias, we become emotionally attached to the things we believe and to the point of being blind to the obvious.  As the saying goes, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”  And people who have had their belief system falsified will simply modify as much as necessary and then move on as if nothing happened.  Why?  Well maybe because it is too hard to start from square one, to admit being wrong, or perhaps because the community and values feel too important to give up?

So, since I have my skeptic hat on, and we already know that the disciples had been looking for a literal earthly kingdom, what is to say they did not pick up and run with an alternative rather than return to the lives they had before.  I mean, even most agnostics will claim that Jesus was a good teacher, so this could be justification for building a mythology to sell this better way.  For radicals the ends often justify the means, lying is not forbidden if for a righteous cause in Judaism.

Anyhow, if backed in a corner, if you’re likely killed even if you do recant, why not refuse to go along with what your persecutors want?  I doubt Joseph Smith would have given his tormentors the satisfaction of admitting that he never had his angelic encounter.  That doesn’t make Mormonism true.  No, this is just how we are.  Pathological liars are so convincing because they believe their own lies.  What Jesus taught was revolutionary, people die for less all of the time.

Is That Really the Best We Have?

I know that I’m not going to win many fans amongst my Christian audience by giving an honest answer to the apologetics they offer.  I’m sorry, it may work for many who already buy-in, it may be enough to convert a few, but I simply cannot be impressed.

That said, I do appreciate Habermas for his admitting that the Gospels do not always agree perfectly, and also admire those who can engage in the long form of argument too tedious for my own tastes.  

Still, all said and done, these sorts of arguments can never span the gap between the extraordinary claims and the most capable skeptics.  It is nibbling around the edges of proof and really only ever evidence that is convincing to those who come in with the right presuppositions—like those claims of the miraculous as an explanation to things not yet explainable.

In his questions and answers follow-up, Habermas mentions how many do not believe for emotional (rather than rational) reasons.  He points to C.S. Lewis as someone who fell away from faith over the death of his mom before his eventual rise as a Christian thinker.  However, the same is also true for why people believe.  We want a world with purpose and meaning, and the Gospel narrative provides this.  It is harder to give up a comprehensive belief system, even if it makes no truly testable claims.

It just feels like apologetics always relies on strawman versions of skepticism.  Even if I fell totally into unbelief, I could never dismiss all of Scripture.  But I also have seen, first hand, how incapable people are at getting the facts right, how they see what they want to see and delude themselves.  I know because I’ve made the error of pursuing something, in sincere faith, that could be falsifiable and was forced to swallow the hard reality of my self-deception.

Most who profess belief in Jesus will never be so bold as to risk it all on something that can be disproven.  They believe things that are written in a book, they attribute their good fortune to God’s goodness or try to accept the bad as being loving discipline, without ever putting it to the test as they would if they had actual faith.  It is as if they hope if they never question then maybe the dream of eternal reward will come true and thus run from any chance of encountering a serious refutation.

The thing is if the resurrected Jesus needed to appear to Peter, James and Paul before they would believe, then why not appear to us all? 

Is there an answer to this that doesn’t come off like an excuse?

It isn’t like the creator of the universe lacked the budget.  And that the most important decision in our lives would come down to believing the eyewitness testimony of a handful of first-century men, this seems rather odd.  Don’t get me wrong either, the Biblical narrative is quite fascinating, the miracles, angelic visits, and promise of life after death to those who believe, it is wonderful. The teachings of Jesus have led to a more compassionate era. Still, the claims like the virgin birth, walking on water, and raising the dead aren’t exactly things a rational person would accept without seeing these miraculous events for themselves.

The biggest problem with the apologetics of Habermas is that it relies on a false dichotomy.  A reader doesn’t need to be able to accept that a source is perfectly reliable to believe some of it is true.  There is a multitude of possibilities as to why the disciples would go with the resurrection narrative.  First, it is much easier than saying they wasted their last few years.  Second, it sells the teachings of Jesus better than anything else.  And third, it can’t be falsified, how does anyone disprove what they claim to have seen?

The possibilities are endless.

This is not to say that the disciples were delusional or lying either.  My point is that it is too easy to see an argument as being stronger than it is.  It is annoying, perhaps, that we can’t rely on apologetics to do the heavy lifting of the Gospel, nevertheless, the only resurrection of Jesus many people will see is that which is embodied in us.  What that means is self-sacrifice and bridging the gap of unbelief with the substance of love. 

Talk is easy, actually taking up the cross is not…

Closer Than Blood…?

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Did you know that mothers actually have the blood of their children (born or unborn) in their veins?

It is astonishing, really, but motherhood isn’t actually a one-way relationship. It is symbiotic. The child provides their own blood for the benefit of their mothers. And once the child is born there’s the release of a hormone (Oxytocin) which leads to that special bonding and attachment that mothers have with their children.

Blood relatives can be our closest friends. We share some of the same genetic material and often intimate experiences as well. My siblings and cousins understand my humor, we think alike in many regards, and sometimes I wonder if I have any true friends that aren’t family. I certainly do not trust anyone, besides Charlotte, the same as I do my own relatives.

Don’t get me wrong either. I know many good people, some who might literally give me the shirt off of their back, and yet I’ve had so many friends like that who have faded out of my life.

The Quote…

The fraternity of Christ, is closer than the fraternity of blood.

St. Ambrose of Milan

Is a statement actual truth or wishful thinking?

This is what the body of Christ is supposed to be. A brotherhood, a group of people who carry burdens and cry together, who cheer each other on and encourage, who have real intimacy rather the superficial, make small talk, kind of relationship. The kind of familial investment that goes to bat for others in the Church, as St. Paul did speaking on behalf of Onesimus:

Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.

(Philemon 1:8‭-‬10 NIV)

When I read that quote of St Ambrose, a couple of days ago, it provoked me to reach out to someone that I love in that way and still did after a sort of falling out. It remains to be seen if that effort, to be a brother, will bear fruit or only widen the divide. But one thing is for certain, no matter how this goes, and that is that relationships that are “closer than blood” have not been my own experience yet.

Sure, the good church people will use weighty words like “brother” and “sister” to describe their relationships, but is it truly reality or is it a faux closeness like those social media scammers trying to exploit religious strangers for personal gain?

Maybe, in this time of social fragmentation and community disintegration, where many children are raised without both of their biological parents, we have lost some of the meaning of these words?

Community, for example, should mean living in close proximity and sharing in common. People used to work and worship with the people who lived in close proximity to them. Now I barely know my next-door neighbors and then drive thirty minutes to ‘fellowship’ for a couple of hours. And then there’s those who watch a sermon at home and make-believe that’s being part of the church. I mean, might as well take it all the way and spend the afternoon gardening, right?

Is It All Fake?

One of my memories, in the church I grew up in, was pastor Sam slapping down a transparency onto the overhead projector, and starting with his wonderful baritone, “You may notice we say brother and sister ’round here…” He was certainly sincere. A fatherly leader in a denomination that neglects such things. Once he caught a hint that I was a fan of high school football he would always ask me about the game. I have fond memories of the times spent in the Corderman’s living room even after leaving my Mennonite roots.

And yet not all there got the memo. We were more glorified acquaintances. Sure, we would smile, shake hands, and make small talk together. There was also that cultural and ethnic component that did give a kind of closeness. There were also those last vestiges of the Anabaptist barn-raising spirit. However, like those veils on the female heads or the foot-washing rituals, it all seemed to be mostly symbolic. A father might set his own son up in business, but no man in the church would ever think of doing the same for a non-family member in the congregation. It was superficial closeness.

Amish community spirit…

I’ve heard it explained before that religious groups hijack the language of family to create a false sense of closeness. At first, I had bristled at this suggestion. It felt like they were trying to discredit this special spiritual bond that people of like faith share. However, if we were close as family, let alone closer than blood, would we even need to use this familiar language? Wouldn’t it just be self-evident, like when Charlotte told me she would rather die with me than go on living without?

It is in that weird territory of language, like when some feel compelled to pray in old English as if this somehow reverences their prayers or those hypocrites that Jesus condemned for their love of important titles. One starts to be able to see through the pretense. There’s a vast difference between the man who treats you as a brother, offers protection, like big Tony Fisher did for me in school, and the people who use the right terms as a way to acquire resources or maintain status.

But, for me, those intuitions only came after being played a fool many times.

And perhaps I learned that lesson a little too well?

It’s Not You, It’s Me

I have trust issues.

And I’m not completely sure why.

It could have something to do with my premature birth and spending my first weeks in a plastic box rather than bonding with my mom. It could simply be a natural disposition. But I do know that I was the one child in my family who had separation anxiety and would go into panic mode if my mom would leave me for a moment to take out the trash. I was clingy and fearful.

Still, I was an extremely trusting person at one time, and long before I knew names like Jerry Sandusky or Jeriah Mast, when I lived in this sort of “Leave It To Beaver” world where people were true as their smiles and everything worked out in the end.

And that’s how childhood should be. Children may pretend, but they don’t put on masks in the same way as an adult and tend to be open about their intentions and accepting of even strangers. It is often easier to talk to eighteen-year-old girls than it is to have a conversation with those that are in their mid-twenties and that’s likely because the latter group understands that male attention usually means romantic interest. We become cagey as we become older, it is a way to protect ourselves from those who might do us harm or simply defile with their hopes of more than we’re willing to offer them.

For me, everything went downhill after puberty and with that gradual (often excruciatingly painful) loss of innocence. One of my earliest memories is walking hand in hand with my cousin when we were five years old. I don’t even talk to her anymore. She’s married to a privileged wackadoodle and didn’t appreciate my opinions of where his far-left politics will lead. Even if that weren’t the case, we probably wouldn’t be holding hands anymore even if we were on better terms. I mean, I would, because I still have fond memories, and yet I’m weird.

Anyhow, my own fear of rejection, a product of my purest hopes being smashed over and over again, has metastasized into disillusionment. I have a hard time trusting. I start to pull away when I sense the slightest bit of phoniness in another person. Call it despair, call it depression, I prefer to think of it as preserving what little sanity I have left, but I don’t want to have fake friendships anymore. I’m tired. Exhausted by it all, truthfully, and simply want to withdraw to the safety of not caring or concerning myself with those who are only going through the motions.

Impossible Expectations, Loving Our Dysfunctional Families

My expectations are impossible. But, then again, they should be. We are told, in Scripture, that with faith all things are possible. And, therefore, if someone declares otherwise, says that they can’t love or live as a Christian ought to live, it is because they lack faith.

Either that or it is all made up.

The thing that has most fed my own fear and doubt, is how people in the church don’t really act any different from people outside of it. In other words, if we don’t act like family then are we even Christians?

My Orthodox parish has a good number of converts and some older singles like me. There is a sort of closeness that came initially, as we traded stories about our experience, and it was very exciting for someone who had looked for depth elsewhere and had come out disappointed. However, there is this class, a sort of misfit club, of converts that is very similar to the Protestant fundamentalists of my past. They are really caught up in getting the Orthodox rituals right and somewhat neglecting as far as the meat of faith which is this self-sacrificial familial love.

My moon shot…

The thing is, I came into this damaged. I had shot for the moon, in faith, and somehow ended up in Williamsport, at Holy Cross, wondering what happened. My expectations were low and it wasn’t about the “smells and bells” to me. There was a combination of things that brought me, excellent theology, Fr. Anthony’s fatherly care, and a connection to the ancient Church. Since I knew no one local who was Orthodox, I went in simply seeking a place to worship and not expecting much. But I did meet many good people there, some who did embrace me as family, I’ll never forget that old woman (I can’t even recall who it was) who warmly told me “welcome home” after my Chrismation.

As with everything in faith, familial love is a work in progress and there are bound to be many failures along the way. At best, we’re a dysfunctional family, like many American families, caught up in our own lives, acting like Protestants when things don’t go our way, and not as truly full of love and grace as we are for our own blood. My want of perfection, and pursuit of the impossibility, must first and foremost mean that I love those who are difficult to love, love who let me down and abandon me, and let God judge those who do not meet my own expectations.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Colossians 3:12‭-‬14 NIV

What Is Love, Friendship, Humanity?

Still, the thought that plagues me most and probably always will is this question of if real love even exists at all. I’m not talking about those passing feelings of fondness we have for another person, but that spiritual bond and willingness to sacrifice ourselves for the good of others. As I’ve posited before, there is a selfish component to love. Not only those who say they “love” someone and then kill them in a jealous rage either. But it seems that it is impossible to love without getting something in return.

It is always nice when a server pays attention to me. I would certainly like to believe that they like me. And I’m guessing a few would actually enjoy spending time with me outside of work too. I’m a polite and considerate guy, I also tend to lay a heavier tip when there’s some conversation that comes along with the meal. I do, indeed, go out because staying home would be lonely and alone since it is simply too hard to coordinate plans with friends or I don’t know whom to ask. So I’ll pay for that time with another human. But it can also be unfulfilling. The relationship could have an element of truth and yet really it is centered on the economic transaction or they would be inviting me to hang out when they’re not on the clock.

There is a scene, in Blade Runner 2049, a science fiction thriller about what it means to be human, that illustrates the point. The story follows, K, a “replicant” (or bioengineered ‘human’), and his relationship with his girlfriend named Joi. Except she is not flesh and blood, not even human, but artificial intelligence, software on a computer, with a holographic projection. Still, despite this, the relationship is real. And, when the device containing her (their memories together that made the interaction meaningful) is crushed, he mourns. As the audience, you feel some pain. Yet, later, an interactive sign, with her likeness, uses the same pet name, and it is obvious that the original Joi was programmed to “fall in love” with anyone who wanted companionship.

The part that gets to me is how hormones and the positive feedback loop of emotions is, practically speaking, the same as programming. So how are the emotional responses we receive from others any more authentic than that of Joi?

What about our own friendships?

Why do we favor some people over others?

Do we love people or do we merely enjoy what benefits we get from them and that’s why we show such strong preference. Sure, there are some who are kinder and more willing to give attention to the unattractive or social outcasts. However, as far as real commitment, ongoing investment, we generally spare that for those most likely to produce a return. In other words, we love those who do what we want them to do, have something we want in terms of their physical form, intellect, or other abilities, or simply feel drawn to as a result of our coding and subconscious desires.

And then we expect people to stay at the level of friendship assigned to them. One sure way to make things awkward is to make an expression of love that is more intimate or deep than the level the other person wants. Asking a girl on a date is a good way to get put on her blocked list, to get an industrial strength cold shoulder, and even if she was seeming to enjoy the relationship up until then. Why? Well, maybe the ‘friendship’ was a social obligation more than anything authentic? You just know, when push comes to shove, most on your social media friends list aren’t going to be there for you, or at least not like blood relatives.

The Impossible Love

Still, I’m not comfortable with this mechanistic, bound by programming and mere product of circumstances, perspective. If love is not a choice, if we can only love those who are attractive, have resources we want, or are this sort of enjoyable reflection of ourselves, then we would not have agency or the ability to follow the commands to love God and our neighbors. Can we really do that? Do people ever go beyond and actually transcend themselves by loving those whom they would not naturally love?

I’m not sure, when I look at the Christian experiment, that I see much evidence of these relationships that are closer than blood. I mean, maybe, if we were willing to “fake it until we make it” then we would be able to overcome. Isn’t that what faith is really about, doing things that are uncomfortable, going against our own natural condition, or an exercise? I’m pretty sure my grandparents didn’t always feel like loving each other and yet going through the motions of a relationship, in those tough times, is how their love became such pure gold. Sixty years of marriage is impossible for many today because they’ve decided to be ruled by what is comfortable at the moment.

So when church people say they can’t love, and I’m talking about any kind of love, what they’re actually saying is that they don’t believe. It is agnosticism, denial of the humanity of another, and have refused to see the command of Christ as being actually true. When we decide we can’t love as we ought to love or pretend that we are loving while we truly are not, we are essentially making Scripture into a lie. At that point we are nothing but animals following after our programmed instincts and selfish desires. Do you truly love the body of Christ as much as you do your own blood?

I’m not there yet…

Diary Of A Tortured Soul

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What makes me a forever tortured soul is that I’m standing on the knife’s edge.  On one side my ideal, my hopes, dreams and faith.  On the other side my rationality, my anxiety, my knowledge and fears.  

The current cultural paradigm tells me the prior things are built upon social construct, the latter upon science.  They have first deconstructed meaning and purpose, now moved on to trying to even erase categories built upon biology, constantly destroying the rule by highlighting the exception.

The problem with me is that I’m not able to dismiss one or the other.  In many regards I am a postmodern thinker, having rejected modernism, and yet not in the way of those out to destroy every religious tradition or cultural institution.

My own understanding is that social structures, like family, gender distinction or nation, do exist for a reason.  Sure, they should not be an excuse for injustice or unfair exclusion.  However, those who only see these things in negative terms or as unnecessary are severely mistaken.

There are things that can’t be viewed under a microscope that are as needed for human thriving as oxygen or water.  Sure, it is easy to dismiss religion as superstition or redefine terms to suit the current demands of outliers.  

But being unable to appreciate the balance of forces that keep a bridge from falling doesn’t mean that someone can keep removing structural members without consequences.

While being a critic of abuses by these institutions of culture and religion, my point has never been to destroy them.  Sure, it is not acceptable, for example, that the word “modesty” in the Bible is misused to blame women for male lusts, nevertheless tearing down all expectations is an abuse as bad or worse.

Perhaps there are benefits to promoting healthy masculinity or a distinct feminine role?

Those trying to erase all difference in the name of equality are the most controlling and unpleasant people.  In the name of tolerance, they are literally at war with everyone present and past trying to preserve an identity they cherish.  They worship the exception while making life miserable for everyone else.

That’s where I differ from the ‘woke’ and the virtue signaling masses that empower their tyrannical edicts.  Sure, I believe in recognizing disadvantages of some and making wrongs right.  But that’s not what social justice is truly about.  It advertises itself as being a solution, yet is only the same evil of intolerance in a new more ‘colorful’ form.

Still, I am not capable of being fully engulfed by the teachings of Christianity either.  I tend to be philosophically in alignment rather than spiritually and that’s because I’m continually dismissing my own experience as invalid.  I mean, so what if I got the warm fuzzies at a church service, right?  I’ve also experienced euphoria on Adderall.  Been manipulated by music, a rousing speech or what have you.

I can identify fully with H.P. Lovecraft:

“We all know that any emotional bias — irrespective of truth or falsity — can be implanted by suggestion in the emotions of the young, hence the inherited traditions of an orthodox community are absolutely without evidential value…. If religion were true, its followers would not try to bludgeon their young into an artificial conformity; but would merely insist on their unbending quest for truth, irrespective of artificial backgrounds or practical consequences. With such an honest and inflexible openness to evidence, they could not fail to receive any real truth which might be manifesting itself around them. The fact that religionists do not follow this honourable course, but cheat at their game by invoking juvenile quasi-hypnosis, is enough to destroy their pretensions in my eyes even if their absurdity were not manifest in every other direction.”

But this writer of horror, who lived in his own existential crisis hell, does not seem like an example to follow.  What is the point of being ‘rational’ if it keeps one in a state of constant dread about how insignificant and out of control they are?  Is this holding to an agnostic and meaningless interpretation actually intelligence or simply another form of ignorance?

I vote the latter.

Command of language, the ability to pull together a vast amount of information and sift science from superstition, these are things seen as signs of intelligence.  And certainly they are measures of a particular kind of capability of mind.  But, as a person can be knowledgeable and unwise, saying things that bring us pleasure or purpose are not real is simply ignorant.

Serotonin is as real as the stars in the sky, the feelings this hormone produces are no different from light.  It would be stupid to argue that light waves are less important because they lack mass.  Likewise, to say that the spiritual is non-existent, because it cannot be weighed or otherwise measured, is not brilliance either.  Lack of appreciation or ability to comprehend things of emotional value is not intellectual strength.

Nevertheless, there is a sense in which seeing behind the veil changes things, there are things that can’t be unseen.  And those Lovecraftian monsters do exist even if only in the mind of the author.  

My own experience, unfortunately, has left me untethered from the comfortable and floating in space.  My sincerest hopes rejected as being delusion by the very people who I had thought would appreciate such things.  It is difficult to cling to the belief that “with faith all things are possible” when your former pastor’s daughter, encouraged by him, supposedly missionary minded, tells you she can’t love.

It is that disconnect between profession and action that keeps me still precariously balanced on bloodied feet.  

Orthodoxy has brought me a firmer foundation than the ever shifting sands of Protestant theology and practice.  It is certainly more ancient and authentic than the alternatives.  Still, that loss of identity and innocence, that process of degradation of my child-like faith over time, makes restoration of my soul seem as possible as a return to my mother’s womb.  How to become less cynical again?

I do envy the simpletons who can ignore such things.  They suffer without swaying in the belief that God is in control.  Wouldn’t we all live that way if we could?

At some point doesn’t logic dictate we take the advice of Job’s wife, curse God and die, rather than continue to push through the pain against all odds?

This blog site, Irregular Ideation, was a product of my dilemma.  That is what to do when the happily ever after and meant to be fairy tales are insufficient to get us beyond our fears.  What does happen when those teeth of quiet desperation and endless angst finally gnaw through what remains of the moral foundation.  The eternal abyss opens beneath our feet, the inscription over our heads: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Fr. Anthony, the spiritual mentor that met me in my time of need, boiled it down to a choice, either we choose to live a life of meaning or we do not.  Charlotte, my bhest, has also urged me to be strong and that likewise suggests that we decide what is worth the effort.  But none of that makes the choice easy or pain free.  Adam and Eve never lost that awareness that biting from the forbidden fruit of knowledge gave them, the thistles of doubt and despair still remain.

It is both assuring and terrifying that the most notable characters in Scripture were tormented.  Elijah, having witnessed literal fire from heaven, fled terrified into the wilderness because a wicked queen threatened him.  John the Baptist, suffering in prison, sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:3 NIV)  And Jesus himself, in angish, speaking of his coming trials, prayed “take this cup away, and on the cross felt forsaken or abandoned by God.

St. Paul, with his undisclosed “thorn in his side,” suggested a division within, the ‘spirit’ being willing while the ‘flesh’ is weak.  The book of Psalms and other Biblical poetry, a great comfort to many today, suggests the writers were experiencing travails and torment.  In no way were these ignorant people living a life of bliss.  They were fully aware, they had their moments of failure, and choose to keep going on in faith despite this all.

As my parish priest reminds us, “If you ain’t struggling you ain’t Orthodox.”

So while my life would be so much easier if I could be agnostic and accept that we’re all products of random chance, biological robots plotting a predetermined course, that everything is about sex and power.  But I don’t give in to that existential dread and will stand against those who, with seeming sadistic pleasure, tear at the foundation of meaning and purpose.

I’m tortured soul because I am able to both see the fullness of beauty and also stare into the void of emptiness.  I live with keen awareness that many have died, clinging to breath and hope, thinking their salvation was right around the corner.  It could all be for naught.  Still, I fight.  I’m not in control, I never will be, and long for that final peace when my journey is complete.  For now, though, I’ll dance on this blade, my persistent uncertainty on one side and strong desire for God on the other.

I can pretty much rationalize around any moral boundaries, maybe eventually embrace a life of self-indulgence and not giving a crap about those whom I’ve stepped on to gain a small advantage.  I could, more easily, give in to self-pity or be overwhelmed by cruelty and give up.  Lord have mercy!  Still, something within, not even sure how to define it, pushes me to endure through hardships.

At some level it makes no sense, why must we go through hell to get to heaven?

It doesn’t make sense.

But then neither does my existence.  How did I come to be?  If my life is finite and time stretches infinity in both directions, there is essentially zero chance of being on this moment right now.  So our existence is not rational nor that we extrapolate, from our pleasure and our pain, that there is something greater.  Maybe belief in the divine realm, where all is made right, is merely a survival mechanism—so why then do we question it?

And so it goes on.  There is no growth without pain, not triumph without suffering, our moments of glory would not be such a pleasure if there was nothing required to attain.  So why not extend this pattern and conclude that our torment, if righteous, will be rewarded…

A picture I snuck of my grandpa, Uriah and myself…while contemplating life…