FearMeneutics

Wasn’t it their Jesus who didn’t care much for this life? Wasn’t it their Jesus who said to love our enemies? Wasn’t it their Jesus who said to give the tunic off your back? What the hell was the parable of the Good Samaritan all about if not endangering one’s own self to help another?

– Ruth (Out from Under the Umbrella)

My good friend Russell, of Russell & Pascal, sent me this YouTube clip last night. As some of you may know, in a previous life I occupied pulpits for a living myself. Before I realized what was required of those, not to mention what was spewing out of those, who stand in that spot.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely, Baron Lord Acton told us, and the authority ascribed to evangelical mega-church (and even mini-church) pastors is about as close to absolute power as clergy can get, short of being the Pope. It is also an extended exercise in electioneering: evangelical clergy are hired, not assigned, to fill their pulpits, which means they can also be fired. Which means they get very good at telling congregations exactly what they want to hear, to the point that it becomes difficult to distinguish between sermons and sound bites.

But even more disturbing than what the pastor himself says in this video is the wild applause in the background. My friends, I give you The Lynch Mob, otherwise known as Sunday morning worship. It is emotion running on pure instinct: this is how the same group can applaud Jesus’ admonition to “love your enemies” and their pastor’s support for killing those same enemies dead, all within six minutes’ worth of a YouTube clip.

This is not love, in any sense of the word; it is hate, fueled by fear, encouraged by clerical authority. And it is why I got out when I did–from flag waving to male chauvinism to homophobia, all disguised as God’s love and all justified by way of Scripture, I just couldn’t be That Guy anymore.

But let’s be clear–That Guy isn’t what Christianity is about, not completely. There are many Christians–including many pastors–who believe Ruth’s words, quoted above, and live according to them both in and outside of the church. Lest we forget that, and treat them as the above congregation wants to treat our Islamic brethren, here’s a few quotes that I found yesterday in posts about the Paris attacks, and our national response to them:

Before I knew it I felt the emotions move from my stomach to falling out of my eyes as I prayed for the leaders of this country, our current President, the men and women who serve in our Armed Forces, for the prejudice in my heart, and the hate in my words-the words that I have only spoken to myself.

I prayed for the children sleeping in tents and on the road to safety, I prayed for the families that were destroyed and separated, both in Paris and Syria. I opened that prayer to every family, worldwide, that has been touched by terrorism.

The emotion made me pause as I began to pray for every mother or father boarding or placing a child on a boat in an act of love, making hard decisions, trusting the life of their child to both faith and chance; my pause provoked by both empathy and reality.

— — — — —

Act Justly: when faces of weary, worn and haggard refugees stream across my Facebook feed, I am reminded again and again that these are people. They have needs and desires. They require air to breathe, the same as do I. They have families and loved ones. They have felt love- feel love. Have been loved. Have known love. In justice, I must show love as well, offering what I have. Even though what I have might be small. It might be as small as a prayer. It might be even as faint as a fleeting thought or as fragile as the whisper of an image striking my mind in quiet, speaking to my soul. But to do justice, I must seek for the best for all human beings across this globe.

Acting justly starts small. If I cannot act justly to those I know and care for, how can I act justly for others in far-flung regions? It starts here. It starts now. It starts with me.

Love Mercy: I must cleave to compassion, strive to be kind, urgently aim toward benevolence. If I have, I must give. If I can share, I must allocate. If I can offer, so I must do. In considering others better than myself, I am showing that I love mercy. In placing others needs above my own, I am showing that I love mercy. In offering my life for the betterment of another life, I am showing mercy.

Our lives are not our own. Do we not believe that we have a Father that protects us? Is He not bigger than terror? Are we not held in the hollow of His hand? Whom shall I fear?

Walk Humbly: when we refrain from extending ourselves, there can be issues of pride involved. But so can they become intertwined in our motives when we give. We must continuously contend for humility in all aspects of our life. If we have been chastened, accept and move forward. If we have been convicted, act on our convictions. If we feel strongly, question the motive that has brought about the feeling. If we do not feel strongly, we can then ask ourselves: why not? In humility, we are made more in His image. We are more of what we could be. More of what we should be.

I ask each of us—myself included—when considering what our role is in the unfolding story of world history (whether that be a story told close to home or farther abroad: what would Jesus do?

Let it be what I would do too.

— — — — —

Dare I grieve for the misguided, angry and evil young men who convinced themselves that this was for God’s glory? Dare I grieve for the mothers of these men and wonder if this was their aspiration? Dare I grieve for those who hold their faith as preciously as I hold mine and see themselves disdainfully numbered amongst the criminally insane? I dare.

— — — — —

To be Christian is not, willy-nilly, to embrace hatred and xenophobia, as some who view the above video might want you to believe. That video is one expression (albeit unpleasant) of a wonderfully kaleidoscopic faith that takes in a multiplicity of views and beliefs, many of which are built upon the very teachings of loving action that Pastor Jeffress’ words so effectively undermine. Not all Christians respond to the hermeneutics of fear.

I no longer think of myself as a Christian, but I would be remiss if I failed to defend the many men and women in my acquaintance who still are, and who would be just as horrified as I am to hear Pastor Jeffress’ message of violence and hate. In the hearts of many, God actually is love, and to be a Christian actually means living that love in a way that transcends the legalistic and the literal.

So, before you judge too harshly the whole based upon the part, remember what we’re talking about this week: if it is unfair to turn our backs on the Syrian refugees because of what the very few among them may believe or desire, then it is equally unfair to reject all Christians because of what this congregation has done to the Christian message.

Hatred is a mirror:
the only person you ever see in it is yourself.

Ground Rules

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Words, words, words.

Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2

As I embark upon this exegetical project of mine, I feel I need to explain my approach, so as to avoid confusion down the line. It may be controversial, but that is the point: as a rule, church leaders are not controversial enough (at least, not in the right way) when “rightly dividing” the word. I say this from experience: too often, preaching is intended to tickle the eardrums, to tell people what they want to hear and send them back out to endure another week in the world. The idea of challenging them to encounter that world and allow that encounter to act as a reverse hermeneutic, itself shaping one’s interaction with scripture, never really comes into play.

What I’m talking about is not the controversy of standing on principle. It is the controversy of questioning the principles upon which we stand. The sacred cows. The pet doctrines. The things we yell about come election time. It is the controversy caused by challenging people to think beyond received wisdom, to see things in a new light.

So, here goes:

1) I will set aside entirely the language of “divine inspiration.” I have no problem with the notion that biblical authors were inspired by a love of God or belief in a certain idea of God, or that as a text it is an inspired work. All texts are inspired by a love of something, from poetry to treatises on computer coding. But this is as far as I will go. Beyond this, there be monsters. Not because I am daunted by supposed divine authority, but because if all people are to benefit from the positive teachings of Jesus (from Christians to Buddhists and back again), the slightest whiff of sectarianism will throw off the whole project. And what is talk of ultimate authority but code for spiritual imperialism?

2) This is not an exercise in demythologization. Myth is not in itself a bad thing. It is the vehicle whereby we interpret our world, meaning handed down through the generations. Myth is not the problem. The problem arises from treating myth as if it were fact. So, when it comes to miracle stories, it is not enough to simply dismiss them as false, because they are not. Of course, they are also not strictly true. Somewhere, nestled between literalism and metaphor, lies meaning. And meaning is what we’re after. Homiletical approaches to miracle stories often suffer not from too much interpretation, but too little. They are either taken at face value (this happened), or rejected at face value (this didn’t happen). This project is aimed at both extremes, in the hopes that their adherents might be encouraged to meet in the middle.

3) I will seek to redefine the doctrine of salvation in terms purely physical. This is one area in which most literalists wax blithely metaphorical. Somehow, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and preaching good news to the poor throw off the shackles of biblical literalism and don the sublime clothing of allegory. Why? Because it’s easier to preach to someone than it is to actually reach out and touch them as people. So, we need a theology that encourages us to save what we can see before moving on to what we cannot. We have no business lyricizing the life beyond while life right here and now falls apart around us. No more fiddling while Rome burns.

4) With certain rare exceptions, I will be sticking to the Gospels (and possibly even some of the extra-canonical teachings of Jesus). I will not touch Revelation with a ten-foot pole: that hobby-horse has been pretty well beaten to death. As for Paul, well, we wouldn’t have most of the problems we have today were it not for him. (The rest of them, of course, were caused by Augustine.)

5) That I am arguing for the good in the New Testament should in no way be construed as a dismissal of the elements which might be more problematic. This is an attempt to offer one interpretation, and interpretation is always an act of dissection, deciding what to keep and what to set aside. To toss out the good because of the bad is unwarranted. This is why authority must be earned rather than assumed: that which is patently unjust must never be accepted as authoritative. And that which passes such things off under the guise of authority should always be set aside.

At the end of the day, this is really about those I’ve left behind. Call it an apology for bailing out before the ship started to sink. I sometimes think that, had I been less exhausted, I might have stayed on board. To these people, I say: there are other ways to live your faith, ways that are contributory rather than retributive, ways that recognize the meaninglessness of “in but not of” as the foundation of a moral code.

Even if you do ascribe to the Bible an authority that I do not, these lessons apply. There are other modes of interpretation that deserve at least a glance, a chance to convey something much more akin to divine love than the image of a jealous God ever could. An approach that allows us to open the door to Jesus without slamming it shut on everyone else.

I am the Toad, perched on a fence post, and this is what I see.

The Bible, as Viewed from a Fence Post

800px-crapaud_st_helier_jerseyOut of a small set of plain speeches by Christ grew a mountain of critical discourse preaching the word of a violently angry God who demanded that He be appeased. Just as in Classical Greece, the more violent, less thoughtful factions came to the fore, and we have lived with the consequences ever since. Long letters to the faithful prescribing aggressive piety have buried Christ’s simple message. Jesus spoke of peace and of contributory ways of being, and the Romans executed him for it. That many of his followers became more Roman than Christian is telling.

– Patrick Finn

They say that if one sees a turtle on a fence post, the only logical conclusion is that a higher purpose (i.e., some dude) placed it there.

I say that that turtle possesses the clearest vision of us all, because only it knows if our conclusion is valid.

So, from my fence post, I feel the time has come to do something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I was, after all, trained in college to interpret the Bible, and I spent almost a decade of my life doing it for a living. Furthermore, I spent the first three decades or so of my life trying to live according to the dictates of divine scripture, and I’ve spent a good deal of time insisting to some of my more strident non-Christian friends that there is good to be found in the Bible, even if one doesn’t assign to it any metaphysical origins.

So, it’s time to put my money where my mouth is.

The first thing I’ll do is dismiss out of hand the entire Old Testament. I know, I know. How very neo-Bultmannian of me. In my case, though, this has nothing to do with dispensations and/or historical relevance, and everything to do with the fact that the Old Testament simply does not do what so many theologians and pastors have gymnastically insisted that it does. It neither “prefigures” Jesus or his teachings, nor does it offer any advice on living one’s religion in a constructive way. It is destructive, divisive, and aggressively political–all of which stands in direct contradiction of even conservative interpretations of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

In other words, mining the Old Testament for lessons on goodness and moral rectitude is not unlike searching for tips on a healthier sex life in the writings of the Marquis de Sade. You might make a little progress…but only if you’re willing to miss the point entirely.

You might point to Pauline “exegesis,” and claim that the later New Testament is all about explaining Jewish misinterpretation of what is, really, a chronicle of divine benevolence, and a foretaste of warm fuzzies to come. But positive interpretations of the Old Testament aren’t just about reformulation; they are an exercise in selective ignorance.

All of the stories from which we glean our “pearls of wisdom” are submerged in so many muddy details that considerable rinsing is required before these jewels can emerge. But once the wash cycle ends, we deny the laundry room’s existence.

Take that most convenient of scapegoats: Noah’s Ark. Beyond mathematical, architectural, and logistical difficulties, one encounters a picture of God based almost entirely on the old “means vs. ends” debate. Look at the pretty rainbow, parcel-post from a fairly petty deity. Try as you might to dig some diamond out of this conceptual muck, it just can’t be done. At least, not with any intellectual integrity.

Here we have, if taken literally, the most drastic bait and switch ever perpetrated upon the human race: Omniscient God creates innocent humans (innocent in the sense that they do not know right from wrong), puts them in a garden full of shiny objects, and tells them not to touch the shiniest one. Which they immediately do. Anyone who’s ever told a child anything could have seen that coming. And God, being omniscient, had to have.

After knowingly creating a hopeless situation and watching it fall apart, God proceeds to hold the innocent humans’ preordained choice against them for all eternity (oh, and by the way, against you and me, as well). What’s more, however many years later, apparently surprised at what he already knew would happen, God places the blame for a deck he himself stacked on the shoulders of the whole human race, and decides to wipe them out for their completely egregious participation in a plan he himself formulated in a way that led inevitably to this conclusion.

Rinse, rinse, rinse.

God loved his creation SOOOOO much, that he saved Noah and his family, and some of the livestock. Sweet dreams, kids!

I could go on, but enough about that. My point is that if one is to find the good in the Christian scriptures, they will do well to jump straight into the New Testament. Because, while there is plenty of detritus through which to sift there as well, there are also many beautiful thoughts that have impacted my life in a positive way and which, were they to become a greater focus within Christian congregations, would represent a game-changer, a whole new way of living Christianity, not just spiritually constructive but socially constructive as well.

I come in the name of the baby so often lost in the bathwater, in the firm belief that there is more to Christianity than the 700 Club might suggest. Beyond the Family Research Councils and the Jerry Falwells we all know and love, there’s this guy named Jesus, who lived and died, and in the meantime taught some wonderful things our religious leaders have worked so hard to make us forget.

I am Toad, perched on a fence post, and this is what I see.

With or Without You

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!

– Emily Dickinson

They always told me: If you have faith “the size of a mustard seed,” you can move mountains. Problem is, mountains don’t move. And when you’re told that they can, and you aren’t able to do it…well, then, what does that say about your faith?

It’s not you, God; it’s me.

It’s July, 2011. I’m standing alone on a trail off of Cataloochee in the Great Smoky Mountains. It is quiet, and I am in turmoil. I’m still clinging to the tatters of my Christian identity, to what little is left of whatever divine dependency I might once have had. I speak into the stillness: “If you’re there, give me a sign.”

This scene has played out in my heart and in my mind a multitude of times over the previous two years, I the honest supplicant, God the (supposedly) loving auditor. Words run amok in my mind: “Whatever ye ask of me believing, ye shall receive.” And I believed, desperately. I had faith, if only the size of a mustard seed. I had doubts, but up until that day I also had faith. And there I was again, on my inner knees, begging for just one tiny proof of life.

Nothing. Silence. Complete and utter silence. Except for a rustling in the trees off to my left–a fisherman who, I realize, must have heard what I just said and is now convinced I’m insane.

But God? Zilch.

In that moment, a moment of absolute despair, the straw fell, the back broke, and I was done. The God who made a donkey speak couldn’t be bothered to speak to me. I had given up a whole life for him to climb into a pulpit and talk him up on a weekly basis, and when I needed him, he was not there. He was nowhere to be found.

As I stumbled back down the trail, fighting the tears and resisting the urge to scream profanities at the sky, I knew. I just knew. I’ve been called a doubter recently, with the best of intentions, but that’s really not an accurate description of my stance. In that moment, I didn’t doubt. I knew, in the pit of my stomach. I was alone.

At first, and for a long time, I was angry. That has faded, for the most part. In its place, there is now determination. I will not be a pawn in anyone’s game, no matter how monumental their cosmic powers.

Since that moment, my true moment of deconversion (to use the popular term), I’ve had my share of life’s well-timed insults. But I had my share of those before that moment, as well. Things have gone wrong; things have gone well. I have been sick; I’ve gotten better. Income has dropped; income has gone back up. I’ve had good days as well as bad. There is virtually no difference between my day to day existence now and my day to day existence before, except that now I sleep later on Sundays.

You might respond with the old story (and an old, old, old story it is): it’s not about this life; it’s about the next. Okay. Prove it. Prove to me that I ought to live this life in fear of what might happen after it ends. And then think about this: there’s a name for this sort of thing. When someone powerful tells someone less so that if he obeys, he’ll have a home and be taken care of, and if he doesn’t, he’ll suffer and die–we call that slavery. Read a history book. We call it slavery…unless we’re talking about God, in which case we call it love.

I. Will. Not. Be. Owned.

Don’t test the Lord, you say. Fine. As soon as it stops being okay for him to allow people to go through hell in this life just so they can sit it out in the next, and call it A Test. Then we can talk.

It’s not the desperate anecdotal efforts to prove that God works miracles that bother me. It’s that these anecdotal efforts serve only to underline the extent to which he does not. No self-respecting zoologist would accept the absence of the unicorn for proof of its existence, but millions of Christians throughout the ages have been taught to accept a chronic lack of action as proof of power (or at least not a denial of it). Like he didn’t act that day in the national park, or on any of the days prior to it, as I, the guy he knit together in my mother’s womb, slowly came apart at the seams.

I’ve somewhat accepted the “atheist” label now, for convenience’s sake, but again, not a strictly accurate description of my position. It isn’t that I believe there is no God. It’s that, even if there is, I have no faith in him. I have no use for him. Because, if he exists, he has not been faithful to me. He hasn’t been faithful to a lot of people. And a God who doesn’t act might as well not exist.

If my wife tells me she loves me every day, if she sacrifices for me, bends over backwards to show me how special I am to her, and in return I toss her in a puddle of crap and leave her there to drown; what’s more, if I tell her it’s her own fault she’s in the puddle, and unless she pulls herself out of it by way of proving her love, I’ll leave her there for good; and if I tell her no matter how much she tries to live up to my love, it’ll never be good enough for me; that she needs me in order to have value, and without me she’s nothing; that the only thing she can do is beg me for acceptance every day of her life and hope that I’m telling the truth, that in the end, I’ll make up for the abuse by giving her a great big hug and “wiping the tears from her eyes”; not only would that be an abusive relationship, but it would be fairly clear that she isn’t the problem.

So, God, if you’re listening: I was wrong. It’s not me; it’s you.

(Be)Li(e)ving Together

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There are many people who in the name of faith or love persecute countless people around them. If I believe that my notion about God, about happiness, about nirvana is perfect, I want very much to impose that notion on you. I will say that if you don’t believe as I do, you will not be happy. I will do everything I can to impose my notions on you, and therefore I will destroy you. I will make you unhappy for the whole of your life. We will destroy each other in the name of faith, in the name of love, just because of the fact that the objects of our faith and of our love are not true insight, are not direct experience of suffering and of happiness; they are just notions and ideas.

– Thich Nhat Hanh

Let’s talk experience:

1) On Christmas morning of 2012, I found myself standing in a gas station in Bernalillo, New Mexico. The attendant, a Muslim man, reached across the counter to take my money and, smiling broadly, exclaimed “Merry Christmas to you!”

2) April 2003, Jackson Square, New Orleans: The Final Four is in full swing, and I am wandering through the French Quarter with an armload of little New Testaments and not the foggiest clue what I’m doing (that last part being completely in retrospect; at the time, of course, I thought I knew exactly what I was on about). As I walked through the park, I was hailed by a gaggle of transients deep in discussion, a comparison and contrast between the Bhagavad Gita and the Memoirs of Kurt Cobain. Why did they call me over? They saw my point of view in the bundle under my arm, and wanted to add my voice to the chorus. They weren’t afraid of the authoritarianism of the Bible; they just wanted to play with it a bit, and see how it might inform their way of seeing and interpreting the world.

3) May 2013 (roughly): I meet the Muggle. Up to this point, while I had encountered a number of atheists of the straw man variety, I had never interacted (at least not seriously) with one made of flesh and blood. And brains, it turns out. I was raised to fear these people: if God was the glue holding the world together, atheism was the turpentine dissolving his adhesive. In the Muggle I discovered, to my surprise, an extremely open individual willing not only to put up with respectful and well-considered disagreement, but even to entertain the potential validity of opinions other than her own. Color me surprised (and somewhat sheepish)…

None of this jives with the lines I was fed during the first several decades of my life. Everyone knows Christians and Muslims can’t mix, especially post-9/11, and in any case, one faith tradition cannot encourage another without descending precipitately into relativism and doubt. I thought about telling the guy he wasn’t supposed to do things like that, that as a Muslim he was supposed to hate Christians and everything they stand for, including and especially one of their chief holidays. (One wonders if anyone has ever bothered to ask him how Ramadan is going.) I thought about reminding him that, as a soldier in the ongoing culture wars, he ought to be burning manger scenes right and left, and doing all he could to take the “Christ” out of Christmas. But I just didn’t have the heart…

As for my gypsy friends in the Big Easy, I’d always been led to believe that non-Christians can have one of two reactions to the Bible: conversion or cardiac arrest. Furthermore, anyone who even considers the truths of any extra-biblical scriptures must be a non-Christian, an assumption which itself reveals the mental space I was in at the time. I have since had the great pleasure of meeting many Christians who are far more open than that in their approach to Truth, but it is a fact that many, many more refuse to look outside their own tradition for wisdom based simply on the fact that it comes from outside their tradition. I consider that one encounter to be a pivotal moment in my personal journey: there is always another perspective to be added to our understanding of the Absolute.

Finally, the atheists among me: simply put, atheists hate not only God, but anyone who believes in God as well. Or so I’d been led to believe. Then I met Madalyn (that’s street speak for the Muggle), and I realized how easily we allow preconceptions to cloud our ability to relate to people who don’t fall exactly in line with our own view of the world. I have learned a great deal from my Muggle friend, and I don’t mean just facts (although that, too). I have learned to be a better listener; I have grown in my courage to say the things I need to say, and not just the things others will like to hear. Most importantly, my faith in the possibility of civil, productive, respectful conversation and debate has been given a shot in the metaphorical arm. I am astounded once again at the fact that so many Christians, the “God’s love” folks, are less inclined to act in a loving manner than the evil, EVIL atheists I was taught to fear, who supposedly peddle only in a particularly nasty brand of nihilistic hatred.

Thich Nhat Hanh, quoted above, taught that the sound of a bell is equally clear whether it comes from Buddhist temple, Catholic cathedral, or Protestant church. In other words, we know the Truth when we hear it, and if we truly know how to listen, we will hear it (or at least the bits and pieces of it we’re capable of understanding in our finite, human Being) everywhere and in everything.

This life, as I see it, boils down to an ongoing search for meaning, and at the end of the day, everything means something. And no one can see everything. Which means we need each other’s eyes, each other’s perspectives. We need the seed of wisdom we each cultivate on our individual paths in order to glimpse the Garden in which we grow.

We need each other, not to become like each other, but because in our difference we complete each other.

What matters is not whether you agree with my religious views, or I with yours. What matters is what we each make of our views…and what they make of us.

Rock and a Hard Place

396280_10100316678480673_951323144_n…now that we’ve got them just where they want us.

– James T. Kirk

Question of the day: Do I want to be an atheist?

Answer: Not necessarily. Call it phantom limb syndrome or whatever you like, but a part of me still very much wishes I was a Christian. More to the point, it wishes all my Christian acquaintances would allow me to still be one.

It seems that it’s not cricket to claim a Christian identity without accepting a prescribed bill of goods. Prescribed, generally, by the same people who insist that any attempt to categorize the Divine is beyond us puny humans. I never cease to be amazed that those who speak of God and faith as beyond definition are all too happy to force that elusive definition upon unsuspecting others.

On the other side of the equation, I wish my new atheist friends would stop trying to revoke my membership anytime I express continuing affection for my Christian upbringing or any amount of regard for people who remain within the Christian fold.

Apparently, unless I’m willing to concede that all those folks, near and dear to my heart regardless of philosophical disagreements, who continue to embrace a religious worldview are near-sighted simpletons who only do good in spite of themselves, I’m betraying the atheist worldview. My wife, my parents, my sibling and siblings-in-law, close friends and long-time mentors–either I condemn them as idiots, or I’m no longer welcome in the sandbox.

So I’m stuck, between a Christian rock and an atheist hard place. I can’t even say I’m an agnostic without the hardliners on both sides accusing me of either intellectual laziness or moral cowardice.

Newsflash: I am who I am. Some days, I’m so strong an atheist that I can’t even spell “God.” On other days, I’m so sick of atheists that I consider baptizing myself again. I am who I am…and here’s what that looks like:

I am a follower of Jesus (the man, not the ex post facto metaphysical invention). But then, I’m also a follower of Shakyamuni Buddha. And a follower of U2, and Jon Stewart. And of truth wherever else I might find it.

I refuse to judge a book–any book–by the worst thing it contains, or a group of people by the most despicable individual among them. The Bible, taken as a whole, contains a lot of stuff that to our postmodern sensitivities is beyond abhorrent, but it also contains a lot of stuff that is beautiful and good. To refuse to learn from the good out of anger at the bad…well, that’s ignorance, as far as I’m concerned. And there are individual Christians out there who make me want to punch a baby, the Fred Phelpses, James Dobsons, and Franklin Grahams and such. But if I allow those infuriating, narrow-minded, self-righteous few to act as straw men for all the good and loving people who raised me and taught to me to be who I am today–heterodoxy and all–then I do Christians everywhere a grave injustice, and I’m the one not worth their time.

(Just so we’re clear, there are also individual atheists out there that I find completely intolerable, Dawkins, Harris, and the like. Anyone who can, with a straight face, tell me that these guys are any more open-minded than the “religious nuts” they go on about–well, XYZ, my friend.)

Religious upbringing is not child abuse. Sometimes abusers happen to be religious, and religion can be transmitted in harmful ways, but one of these things is not (necessarily) like the other. There are things about my childhood that I wish had been different, but that applies, I expect, to all of us. What I know for a fact is that, while my parents raised me in a very Christian home, they also taught me to be the loving, accepting, thoughtful person I try so hard to be. I owe them who I am, even the willingness to tell all y’all to take a flying leap if you suggest otherwise.

Take away the ad hominem, and we’re all just a bunch of plankton convinced that we’re whales. We’re all on the same journey, whether or not we agree on the stops along the way. It’s hard to believe, I know, but there are Christians out there who don’t believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God; who don’t believe in an afterlife, or Noah’s ark, or a six 24-hour day creation. They don’t even believe in stoning homosexuals. And they are Christians whether you like it or not.

There are also atheists who are more than willing to see the beauty in Scripture (anybody’s Scripture, Bible, Koran, Talmud, etc.), and to engage Christians in respectful conversations based on an assumption of mutual intelligence. I know there are, mainly because I am one of them.

Somewhere inside me, Christianity lurks, hand in hand with the atheist’s skepticism. Why? Because it occupied the first three decades, plus, of my life. I cannot turn my back on that part of my identity anymore than I ought to turn from my search for Truth. Because some of that Truth still speaks through the Christian in me…

Book Review: The God Delusion

The God DelusionThe God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Dawkins’ The God Delusion is by far the most frustrating book I’ve read in a very long time. I so desperately wanted to love it, as it’s been recommended by several people whose opinions I value. But the best I can go is two stars out of five: the author makes some very good, very perceptive, very necessary points, but they are swallowed up by all the points he doesn’t quite land (including his central point), and by the tone of the book in general.

The author declares that the anthropic principle “provides a rational, design-free explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a situation propitious to our existence” (p. 136). However, the anthropic principle, on its own, is of no explanatory value: it is tantamount to arguing that the building one is standing in is a Macdonalds because the building one is standing in is a Macdonalds. It is a tautology at best: as Dawkins uses it, the presence of life in the universe is explained by the presence of life in the universe (we’re here because we’re here), which is not so much to provide an answer as it is to beg the question. As such, the anthropic principle is not an “alternative” to the creationist stance, as Dawkins claims. It is not an “alternative to” anything. It is a starting point, not a conclusion.

Dawkins espouses natural selection, in part, as the means by which the anthropic principle worked itself out in the case of planet Earth. In this regard, he does a fairly decent job of arguing his case: it is an actual explanation for the ways in which life came about on this world. Many may find it more convincing than the creationist stance–for that matter, so do I. But it is still only AN argument, as is the creationist stance itself. The same may be said of the other mechanisms he suggests whereby the anthropic principle may have found expression in our solar system/universe. They are each continuations of the anthropic principle; without them that principle applies to nothing. While Dawkins accuses religious thinkers of misunderstanding the anthropic principle, one is left with the distinct impression that he has not understood it himself (or that he has, and has chosen to use it anyway, hoping no one will notice the difficulty).

This, however, is not the biggest issue I take with his book. In the final analysis, Dawkins is an elitist and a bully. Throughout the book, contrasts are drawn between the atheist sophisticate and the unsophisticated religious thinker, the “Brights” and the “Dims,” if you will. He makes it very clear, if implicitly so, that disagreement with the Darwinian point of view equals a lower-level intellect, immaturity of mind, etc. It is impossible, in his opinion, for a rational thinker to arrive at any conclusion other than his own. Thus far the elitism. As for the bullying: the natural outcome of Dawkins’ attitude to what he considers unjustified opposing viewpoints is itself fairly Darwinian. One wonders how many “Dawkinsians” came to their position freely, and how many did so because to do otherwise would consign them, willy-nilly, to the stupid, uneducated junk pile? In the case of the “evidence from majority scientific opinion,” how likely is a scientist openly to embrace a religious worldview if the inescapable consequence is being (literally) laughed out of her profession? Ultimately, Dawkins does not allow for honest opposition or argument, not unlike the religious thinkers he criticizes.

Again, Dawkins makes a number of very good, quite necessary points with which even lifelong religious adherents might easily agree. The idea of pasting religious labels on children before they are able to form any concept of what the labels mean is ludicrous and potentially harmful, whether psychologically or simply as affects intellectual openness and honesty. It is laughable for Christians to embrace scientific discovery when it supports what they believe and reject it as soon as it begins to contradict. And so on. Ultimately though, the tone of the book (at least in my opinion) overshadows its content. It is a good rule of thumb to distrust anyone who insists that others think as they do in order to be judged intelligent. This is exactly what Dawkins does, again and again throughout the book.

I am no disciple of any particular faith tradition, but having read this book I am also no disciple of Dawkins. The points he makes are often good; the manner in which those points are made is off-putting at best, completely alienating at worst. The old saying is true: you catch more flies with honey. Dawkins has chucked the honey pot out the window.

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