There are many things in life that depend on a smell test or an intuitive sense. When the religious hypocrites brought a woman before Jesus the legal prescription was simple, she was caught in sexual sin and deserved death according to the law of Moses. They knew of his compassion for sinners and had hoped to trap him. If Jesus spared her he would break the law, but if he condemned then he would be just like her judgmental accusers.
What happened next in that narrative totally upended their simplistic conception of the law and application. To them, it was all very black and white. They were very thorough in defining the limits, of their legalism, and this adulterous woman fell well outside the bounds of any gray area. But Jesus defied them. We don’t know what he wrote in the dust at their feet, but we do know that Jesus, in response to their demands for an answer, told them “let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” and that after this they left one by one.
Growing up in a fundamentalist sect, in the shadow of purity culture teachings, it was always about meeting expectations. If only you could follow the rules, then you might be accepted, then her dad (or your own) would be pleased and no longer harbor those often unspoken negative opinions. Sure, maybe those in this culture knew better than to be as open about their disapproval, like the men accusing the woman, but they still miss the point and will attempt to explain away the full significance of what Jesus did. To them, the goal is to be undefiled enough to cast the first stone.
Those blinded by a legalistic mindset only comprehend the letter of the law without ever understanding the spirit or true purpose behind it. When they are not onerously enforcing the technicalities of their own (often errant) interpretations of Scripture then they are carving out special exceptions for themselves and in all circumstances are missing the spirit or intent of the law. (Romans 2:29, 2 Corinthians 2:4-18) They see the law as a means to gain God’s favor or as means to gain rank on their more sinful neighbors rather than what it truly is.
First of all, the law was not established for Pharisees past or present to play morality police. Yes, we’re told to work out our own salvation. We need to confess our sins and admit our falling short as often as we do. But it is the role of the collective body of the Church to apply the law to others and not our own. In other words, we should stay in our lane, and use the law for introspection rather than as a hammer to beat over the head of our neighbors. Our obligation to others is to do as Jesus said and learn the meaning of the phrase, “I desire mercy not sacrifice.”
Second, the law isn’t just an arbitrary set of rules to prove our worthiness to God. No, it is rather something established for our good and as a protection from harm. As Jesus said, the Sabbath was “made for man” and not the other way around, which is why he let his disciples violate the rules. In other words, the law is very practical, for our good, and can be bent when need be. Sure, we may not always understand the reasons and thus we should obey even when we do not, but there is always room for exception. This is what freedom in Christ entails—the ability to live by the underlying intent rather than only by the technicalities of written codes.
Those in the construction industry know about building inspectors who are ‘by the book’ to the point of being ridiculous. It isn’t actually making anyone safer. These types often lack hands-on experience, seemingly even basic comprehension of what makes a structure work, and they just make life harder for everyone. They can be technically correct, according to line three of page 395 of the code book, while still being clueless and unhelpful. This kind of expert has the letter of the law and lacks the spirit. This is to say that they have useless knowledge that makes them feel qualified when, in reality, those in the field know better.
And religious fundamentalists all end up like these building inspectors, hung up on details and never adding any real value to the project. They condemn everyone around them, in violation of the commandment of Christ, while they themselves have a beam in their own eyes. They think they are moral people because they can follow a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” and yet fail to comprehend the meaning of “man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
Indeed, we may not allow our children to cross the street without permission, it may also be jaywalking to cross in certain areas, and yet would the legal statute matter if there was an urgent need to cross?
Politicians and lawyers can find ways to be technically ‘legal’ while also immoral or violating the principle of the law. They can also point out when others do what is right when it is technically illegal or when others fail to dot an ‘I’ or cross a ‘T’ as is required. But they fail to apply the law correctly because they miss the actual intention or purpose behind the law. They do not know the Jesus who makes even our righteousness seem like filthy rags and are trying to earn God’s favor instead.
This is to be lost, like the rich young ruler, who was still trying to save himself through his own works. You can do everything right according to the Scripture (or at least your own understanding of the writing) and still be lost. You can do everything wrong and still be saved. This is because we always depend on the mercy of God rather than our ability to be perfect.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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…
They see encroachment on animal habitats, destruction of the environment, our nature, and imagine the world as being better without people.
Sure, I do understand the sentiment, I do not want to see something good be ruined. And I believe, for the good of humanity and all other living things, we should be caretakers of this amazing planet to the extent that we are able.
However, without us to observe, what would be left to make the judgment that the world is better or worse without us?
Without a Capable Observer—Does Anything Really Matter?
Like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the existence of anything is a matter of there being a capable observer. Rocks or even simple organisms show no sign of being capable of appreciating their own existence—let alone beauty or the universe.
Our existence in time and space is something profoundly mysterious no matter what you believe about the origin of life—created in six days or over the span of 13.8 billion years—it is incredible.
But we are unique in this capacity to use words to describe our existence. We are, by all appearances, alone in this ability to contemplate our own existence or at least able to do it at a level unmatched by anything else known. Dolphins and elephants are, indeed, very intelligent yet, at very least, lack our vantage point as observers.
The Contradiction of a People Hating Person
Those who claim to prefer the creature over humanity are truly at odds with themselves. Not only are humans the pinnacle of the complexity of life on this planet, but we are also special for our ability to appreciate that we or anything else exists.
In other words, no beholder means no beauty, because beauty is not something out there or independent of an observer—beauty is rather a concept of mind that depends on the existence of the observer as much as the things being observed. What is out there only exists to the extent that something is able to assign value or appreciate that it does exist.
People who hate people underappreciate the wonderful mystery of their own consciousness and completely fail to comprehend that their observation is what gives all things value.
An amoeba may exist independently of us in some form, but it lacks the human mind to process things like future and understand the result of actions or consequence—which is the basis of the moral reasoning and the very thing that can cause some to view themselves (or just other people) with contempt.
Maybe it isn’t that people hate all people so much as they are narcissistic and simply hate every other person—with exception of themselves?
Narcissists Only Value Their Own Consciousness
It does seem that there are many people, who see themselves as being worthy of resources because they are (in their own minds) enlightened and special in comparison to others.
This aggrandized perception of self is possibly due to their own inability to imagine others being equally (or more) intelligent, as consciously aware or moral as they are, and otherwise equal. Their deficiency of imagination is only made worse by a culture that promotes a notion of self-worth that is independent of love for humanity in general.
Whatever the case, it leads to self-contradiction, it leads to a person who values themselves and their own moral judgment while not recognizing this capacity in others to do the same. It is basically a person who loves their own consciousness so much that they can no longer value perspectives that do not mirror their own and thus hate (rather than appreciate) anyone in competition with them for resources.
A people hating person sees other humans as being greedy and abusive, but fail to comprehend their own jealousy and control freakishness. They judge humanity as a whole without turning the criticism back on themselves or understanding that they themselves, with the mundane choices they make on a daily basis, are as responsible for the large scale problems as the collective whole.
A person who sees others as morally or otherwise inferior to themselves it is on a path to self-destruction. Pride coming before the fall is not karma—it is consequence. A person can become so blinded by their own arrogance and contempt for others that they are actually worse than those whom they condemn. They cannot learn or grow and are bound to hit a wall at some point when their own hatred makes their own life unbearable.
In some cases, when coupled with young male aggression, they become school shooters.
But in most cases, people who undervalue people simply live as one led by the nose by their own confirmation biases and emotions. They see themselves as having all the right answers, as always being the good or righteous person, and are really just egotistical and hypocrites. They may feel entitled because of their inflated self-worth—but are deceived. Like Cain who slew his brother Abel (as means to deal with his own cognitive dissonance as a result of his sacrifice being rejected), they are truly an enemy of themselves.
Why Care About What Will Eventually Burn Anyways?
Another deficiency of a person who hates other people is their inability to comprehend the reality of the universe as it is. Both an atheist astrophysicist and religious fundamentalist should be able to agree on this and that is that the universe as we know it will eventually end. Solar physics (evidenced in the stars) and Scripture point to fire as being the ultimate end of life on earth.
Even if some life were to somehow escape that consuming fire it too would cease as the cosmic clock spring of thermodynamics (behind all movement and life in the universe) became completely unwound. That, the “heat death of the universe” may be billions upon billions of years in the future, but it is as inevitable as the sun coming up in the morning and everything we know in this life will cease. There will be no stars flickering, no photosynthesis, no warmth or entropy—all will have expired.
But we do not even need to go that far out in time to understand the reality of life. Take a visit to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City sometime, consider for themselves all of those various forms of creature that went extinct and went extinct long before humans could have played a significant role in the environment. Nobody cries over Pakicetus nor laments the complexity of the ecosystem that it lived in, so why be upset about Pandas or Polar Bears following the same path?
Certainly, we should be concerned about the decline in the diversity of life, especially as rapid as it has been in recent centuries. That said, there have always been periods of expansion and contraction, usually related to cataclysmic events such as comet strikes or super volcanos, which will happen whether we campaign to “save the whales” or not. Which isn’t to say that we should care any less than we do, but we should probably care differently knowing that it is all temporal regardless.
Which leads into a question, if all this will end one way or another…
What Really Is Important?
Humans are magnificent creatures. We are the only creature capable of planetary destruction. But also creatures so extraordinarily capable of perceiving the future and contemplating things like value. It is our unique abilities that make our complex moral reasoning possible, where we can examine our own actions (collectively or individually) and pronounce judgment.
We are more responsible, but only because we are better at understanding the consequences of our actions and are able to adjust our behavior accordingly. We make priorities. We decide, in our own minds, what is good or bad, what is worthy of our love and what is deserving of our hate, whether flamingos matter more than fetuses.
We determine what is important.
So what is most important given that everything in this universe has a definite expiration date?
If there is anything timeless or beyond this universe, more important than life itself, what is it?
For me the answer is love.
If anything can escape our temporal existence it is love. Love transcends. Love allows us to show grace to the other creatures on this planet which are most like ourselves and that being all of those other fallible human beings. It is true, people are often unappreciative and wasteful. But hate for other people is really only self-loathing (removed a few steps) and to underestimate the value of our existence as the observers most capable of appreciating the beauty of this world.
It is important that we love other people. Sure, there billions of us and it is really hard to love those faceless masses sometimes. Still, other people have as much right to exist as anything else in the universe, we should appreciate them that they are conscious, like us, and love them as we want to be loved ourselves. Without love, nothing is really important and our existence, this tiny snapshot we get of the universe as humans, is meaningless.
The past few years have been monumental for me. This blog has followed my own personal journey from the initial ideation about love, faith and spiritual life to some major transitions. I’ve changed careers, departed from the denomination that had been the identity I most cherished, and basically had my life turned upside down.
This blog had started as a result of a prayer, as an act of faith, and was to chronicle a fight to overcome the odds. I had realized my own limitations. I was single, in my mid-thirties, working a job that didn’t suit me very well, and worried about being the unfaithful servant who buried his talents. Unfortunately, for myself, I didn’t know a way out of the predicament.
But, instead of wallow in my self-pity, I decided to actually believe what Jesus said, “everything is possible for one who believes,” and with complete reckless abandon, prayed to God asking that the impossible be made possible for me.
I had committed to believing beyond human reason or my own rationality, to believe without adding the qualifications so often used by the religious to excuse their own lack of faith and as a means of preserve their self-serving status quo. My aim was to overcome whatever, the bad luck, personal failures or cultural prejudices, that kept me from living out the potential that seemed to be locked away somewhere and yet was still unrealized.
Of course a big part of that prayer, given the importance of marriage in a conservative Mennonite setting, was in hope of finally getting beyond the invisible barrier to my romantic success and finding the “right one” who could love me despite my imperfection.
My deepest fear had always been that love is little more than a post hoc explanation of something determined at a far baser level. In other words, that love was decided by attributes mostly biologically predetermined or based in performance. If a person lacking the right inborn characteristics is essentially unlovable, then the whole mythology we build around love as something pristine or pure is a delusion and love itself becomes a justification of our selfish or carnal ambitions.
I was determined to disprove that hypothesis. I intentionally sought out a girl theoretically “out of my league” for a variety of those lesser reasons. Before this, I had always picked pragmatically based in who I thought would say “yes” (although they often didn’t) and not with any real faith. This time I picked on what I believed God wanted me to be and because she seemed to be the one who could get me past those limitations. She wasn’t someone who seemed frozen in indecision, she shared my own cultural ideal and would compliment my strengths and weaknesses.
Alas, her sanity won out over my irrational faith-fueled hopes.
However, in telling my story of faith and struggle this blog gained popularity. Over the time my hopes ran into the brick wall of her reasons she couldn’t love me (very much like those I had feared) this blog rose to prominence in the Mennonite blogosphere. Suddenly, in my moment of deep despair and disappointment with my Mennonite ideal, I had an audience of thousands. In a matter of hours a sardonic post assigning points for marriageability, something I wrote one morning while stewing over the reality of the depressing situation I found myself in, was a viral sensation and had obviously resonated with a great swath of people.
After that, I wrote a string of posts about some of those issues I’ve had with the church I was born into and previously didn’t know how to express. It was during this time that a blog post about fundamental flaws in the current conservative Mennonite thinking was picked up by Mennonite World Review. It later made rounds in a conservative email group posted by none other than Peter Hoover who had, by writing Secret of the Strength, inspired my Anabaptist perspective many years before and put me at odds with the creeping influence of fundamentalism.
The great irony in it all was that I reached the pinnacle of my own influence in the Mennonite world *after* I had attended my last service.
Since then, in a greater irony, I’ve seen a romance blossom that would’ve been impossible had I remained Mennonite and evidence of that kind of love of the faithful variety that I did not find where I had most expected to find it. There is a real story of the impossible being made possible developing, not the story of love triumphing over the odds that I had thought I would tell and yet every bit as powerful. However, too much is in limbo right now regarding that circumstance to write about it.
Beyond that, there is also my being immersed into Orthodoxy and the difficulty of putting that experience into words. I mean I could argue for Orthodox Christian practices and perspectives, I have written a couple blogs trying to explain such things to my Mennonite audience, yet Orthodoxy is something better to be experienced. Like Jesus said “follow me,” they make an appeal that is not strictly emotional nor intellectual, but experiential. Faith is something that must be walked to be understood. The Orthodox don’t proselytize in a Protestant manner. No, instead, they invite others to “come and see” like Philip did in urging Nathanael to join him and rely on the mysterious work of God:
The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”
Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip.
When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”
Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.” (John 1:43-50)
Can anyone rival that with eloquent words or elaborate arguments?
I know I can’t rival that sort of mysterious work in my own words and worry that my words will actually take away from the beauty of the ancient faith. I mean, what could I possibly add to something so wonderful and profound with my clumsy and simplistic explanations?
So this all leaves me with a dilemma as a writer. Am I more than a one-trick pony? Even as I’ve progressed over the past few months, I feel my blogs have started to become a bit repetitive, as if I only really have one story to tell, and that has bothered me. My area of expertise, at this point, is how to fail miserably trying to find love in the Mennonite context. My painful past is something that I would rather transition away from, something to be discarded along with “former delusions” that I renounced at my Chrismation, to make way for a brighter future.
But the question remains, what will be written in the next chapter?
I’ve been on a journey of faith. I have left the comfortable waters and ventured to territory of expectations where few would dare to go.
Many people claim faith. But oftentimes what some call faith is actually the safe harbor of religious tradition and cultural obligation. They never go beyond what is reasonable to themselves or their peers, they live within reasonable boundaries and never question the limits of their own reasoning or grow beyond it.
It requires a small degree of faith to sail in a harbor and some skill too. But, going beyond the harbor, sailing beyond the navigational charts, trusting that inner compass of promised lands over the horizon and beyond sight, that requires true faith. It is a faith for a journey that can’t be planned in advance, a journey where provisions could run out, where there is no shoreline to see, where storms arise and hope can seem distant or even an impossibility.
Some days I do long for the simplicity of that harbor I left before starting this journey. I pray that my faith will lead me to the place of solace that promised to be right over the horizon. It becomes hard to believe your own eyes when a sight of land at a distance has too many times before become a mirage. The food has become stale, the rations have been diminished and the ship has been in better repair.
Storms of fear and doubt come and go. It is hard to distinguish friend from foe in a place where true colors are often hidden and only discovered after a cannon blast has ripped a hole in your side. There are days of pleasantness, a good tailwind and clear skies. There are days of fog, days of doldrums, dark nights, moments of terror and times where all seems hopeless.
Still, one has little choice, one must continue to sail on in faith because the harbor is too far gone to return back. You continue ahead knowing only in your heart that is land ahead. It is a faint glimmer of hope in a vast empty ocean, but it is a hope that cannot be lost.
“The question is: is the way the universe began chosen by God for reasons we can’t understand, or was it determined by a law of science? I believe the second. If you like, you can call the laws of science ‘God’, but it wouldn’t be a personal God that you could meet, and ask questions.” (Stephen Hawking)
Professor Hawking is one of the most intriguing men of our time. He is known for his work in the field of physics and was popularized by a book, “A Brief History of Time,” that reached a broad audience. He is undoubtedly a brilliant mathematician, he can reconstruct the universe in his mind using numbers and formulas, and has basically proved that the universe (including time) had a definite beginning. But Hawking is agnostic, he sees a big impersonal ‘God’ when he looks into the expanse of space and is probably right about what he sees.
A Small View of God
Many people (religious fundamentalists and atheists especially) subscribe to a small view of God. They confine God to simple ‘black and white’ human moral or logical thinking (theirs) and essentially demand a God on their level. But if God is the creative force behind the entire universe, then God is bigger than the universe and also bigger than any of the concepts of morality or logic in the universe. A big concept of God is a God that transcends universal moral categories and exists above or beyond all human reasoning. A God bigger than scientific law or religion.
Finding God in Our Humility
Picture humanity as an infant, this earth as our playpen and the universe the house over our heads. We can see the room, we can speculate about other rooms and theorize about some sort of reality beyond house. We know house is predictable, the temperatures fall between certain parameters, schedules are somewhat consistent and yet we see through a foggy window that there could possibly be more than the house we are in. God is like the parent who can come and go, lives beyond the playpen and our childish mind.
Finding God Beyond Our Own Dimensionality
But my concept and understanding of God goes beyond that have a celestial parent or personality. I believe Biblical personification of God is simply an attempt to explain what is inexplicable. Still, I do believe God can give himself personality to relate to us and is more than some vague life force or abstraction. I believe God is a spirit or mind, but one that dwells beyond the rules of science that govern the dimensions of this universe. In other words, God sees the Tesseract of our limited dimensionality and exists beyond all dimensionality.
Finding God Beyond Material Reality
I know this might not appeal to those with the materialism perspective who do not feel inclined to accept reality beyond their ability (or the ability of their scientific instruments, mathematics and logic) to see. But science has many limits. We cannot scientifically prove our own consciousness exists and still accept it as reality. Not everything of our reality is provable by experiment or calculations, some things we must just know and accept as reality, the reality of our consciousness one of those things and the idea of greater consciousness another.
Finding God Beyond Cold Calculation
“Consideration of black holes suggests, not only that God does play dice, but that he sometimes confuses us by throwing them where they can’t be seen.” (Stephen Hawking)
Professor Hawking and other theoretical physicists seek a ‘unified theory’ for their science, an explanation for the paradoxical discoveries that upset a simpler idea of the universe, but the day it is found (if these ‘dice’ were left within our reach) there will be more questions unanswerable by science. Questions of why, of purpose and morality are probably beyond math. Why we do not believe it is immoral for a cat to eat a mouse, both sentient beings, the cat remorseless, and yet to kill becomes an issue of morality for us. Why care if the weak are exploited?
A Unified Theory of God
We are sentient, we are also moral creatures and our morality needs to enter the grand equation or we are left with little more than cold calculus that starts with star dust then ends with the heat death of the universe. We know there is something more just as we know we consciously exist and therefore we need a bigger view of God than Hawking’s. We need a God so big he can be personally involved or, in other words, a unified theory of an intimate and big God. Consciousness, morality and science offer us a place to start a pursuit of God, but we need to pursue further…
The Personal and Intimate God
“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” (John 4:19-26 NIV)
Looking Backwards and Beyond the Universe for God
Many search for God, but do they look in the right place to find God? The religious are like this woman who met Jesus, they seek God in physical objects like places, rituals or books. The scientific mind looks further out, they search the universe for answers down to the tiniest particles and up to the lights of the sky. But both are looking outward to find God and truth. Could it be our mind is the closest possible connection we could ever have to the realities beyond the material, mathematical and time universe?
Finding God in the Moral Mind
If the entire universe can be compressed to the size of a point as small as the period at the end of this sentence, then a God big enough to be simultaneously small is not such a big leap. So perhaps Hawking, like that woman talking to Jesus, is looking in the wrong direction to find the person of God?