Tag Archives: faith

The problem of ‘god’s will’

Usually I open one of these columns with some story, some episode that reminds me of something else, etc., etc. Today I’m jumping right in the deep end of the metaphoric pool because my spouse is an occasional Presbyterian and has me thinking about the old school Presbyterian conservatives still embracing predestination. I find this annoying. If you don’t know, the short definition for predestination it is that everything is fate, determined in advance. It is a scripted fate and we are just actors in a play who are only given a few pages at a time, with the ending changing (or occurring) at any moment. In response, allow me to use a weighty theological term: rubbish.

The best friend of predestinationists, like fundamentalists (of any religion), is rationalization. That’s because no human can adapt these simplistic, rigid theologies without rationalizing all the obvious and daily events that make their theology absurd and logic impossible. When something good happens to them, it is god’s will. When something good happens to their enemies then god’s will is a mystery. And have you ever noticed that folks with these narrow theologies always have a long list of enemies? Me, I have secret admirer type enemies. They don’t know who they are, but I remember the last time they crapped on me. Mercifully, it’s a short list. One of those was a boss who bullied me and just got fired. He’s off the list now. Once justice kicks in, I’m cool. I never took it personally; after all, he was just another misogynist. Plenty more out there.

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s new book, Small Victories. I do enjoy reading her books and find someSmall Victories amusement and inspiration. Here I am on a holiday week-end, thrilled to not be schlepping off to work where people will be telling me what to do – or at least strongly implying it. I get to sit home in my sweats and read.  Yippee.  Then Lamott slips (I hope) and writes: “…that could not possibly be God’s will for us…” (p.245). Lamott is frequently sarcastic, which I love, so maybe it was that kind of reference. I still found it disturbing. I don’t mean that in a reluctant or funny way either.

The biggest problem I find in touting a god’s will vernacular is that it eliminates human responsibility. Those rationalizing away may suggest that the human experience is about seeking that perfect Will. Again: rubbish. I recognize that as a Westerner, I have probably been infused with too much individualization and not enough community. That said, if my own human experience is not mine to define, then what is the point? I don’t see a cosmic or theological value in stumbling through the fog to figure out a mysterious plan by a seemingly arbitrary, and often capricious but omnipotent deity. No thank you. Of course it’s true that I regularly feel battered by life. But those miserable events were not prescribed by the God of Job allowing the Devil to keep throwing shit at me to prove whether or not I’m faithful.

What I am reluctant to admit, is that I’m a person of faith. That is because, I don’t want anyone thinking I’m a role model. It is also because when people talk about faith, it is usually because they really want to talk about their own ideologies. Faith is deeply personal and can’t be imposed by others. We can only figure this out for ourselves, like it or not. That, I believe is a life-long process.

I have been visiting and collecting data on weekly worship for more than a year. When my research is concluded, I will have been to every place of worship within two miles of my house, stretching to 10 miles in order to fully cover most denominations and religions in proximity. Because this country has a Christian majority, I have been to only Christian churches so far. For the most part, I wanted to see for myself if churches are dying and why people go. What I have found, and for this I have sufficient data, is very few churches are welcoming and friendly. I determine this by observing whether I am invited back and if anyone greets me – other than the usher who is assigned to that as a duty. I do my best to blend-in, I smile endlessly (but just short of crazy) and don’t really speak unless spoken to, so it’s not that they read my blog or know what I’m thinking. (Whew.) The majority are neither welcoming nor friendly. Yes, the majority.  (One example follows.)

 “Open Door” – Closed Minds

I have another observation, but it is more anecdotal: the more rigid and ideological the church, the less welcoming and friendly. I have been sitting in a number of these churches where both the subtle and overt message was about god’s will. People seem to climb into this thinking as if it was the lap of a good parent. I observed it to be more of a comfortable indulgence, than the discomfort of being challenged to be a better person or help the suffering. The other observation I’ve made, which is also anecdotal, is that the more the church engaged in service to others outside their own club, the healthier the church seemed. For many churches, I have felt anger or pity. For the churches which are driven to help others, I felt hope and saw vitality.

I have faith that life is about experiences and compassion. It is more about learning from my own mistakes, for which I accept responsibility, than prayer for a divine map. In this Anne Lamott is right in identifying “Small Victories.” Sometimes that’s all we’ve got. Many religions talk about grace, though using different words for it. The Lutherans think they own that word, they do not. If I were to pray for grace, I would imagine it as a way to respond to life’s crap with more compassion than bitterness. And I would further request the grace to notice the suffering around me and work to find ways that I am capable of responding. I do request help from the Universe in this pursuit, not because it’s God’s will or to earn an enviable placement in heaven, but because life gets really difficult. I fail a lot – again, I’m nobody’s role model. But I do not need to be forgiven for not following a plan I don’t know about. I just need a little help to get back up, and to recognize those “Small Victories” along the way. – J.B.

Atheists in Foxholes

As it turns out, there are atheists in foxholes.  As reported in an AP story that ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the U.S. Army has 2,500 soldiers who describe themselves as atheist, and 101,000 who report no affiliation, out of approximately 548,000 (11/8/2009 “Faith and furor: Muslims say Ft. Hood gunman does not define Islam”).

When I mentioned to someone that I was reading a book about atheism she said, “Oh, it’s good to know the enemy.”  I admit it was my mistake for trying to have a sensible conversation with a Christian fundamentalist, but calling someone with different religious views an “enemy” is simply not very Christian.  I will return to the vitriol later, but I want to address what I believe are the essential issues first.

I finished reading the late Christopher Hitchens’ book god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  I am struggling to finish The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.  Both of these books were New York Times best sellers. Since I am a person with a life-long interest in religion, I never felt compelled to study atheism before now and reading both of these books was both challenging and disturbing, as I believe both authors intended.

Hitchens’ book was a brilliantly written page-turner while Dawkins’ book is occasionally amusing but primarily tedious.  For people of faith, or those even mildly interested in religion, it doesn’t make sense to be afraid of, or worse – hate, atheists.  Faith is the opposite of fear, so how intelligent, well-read atheists think should provoke consideration not anger.

The Hitchens’ book builds a convincing case for the negative impact of religion on social history and individual experience, especially in the treatment of children and when connected with politics.  Ordinarily I enjoy sarcasm, but the Dawkins’ book is so relentlessly facetious it was nearly impossible for me to appreciate his perspective.  While Hitchens hoped to influence readers, Dawkins’ was shameless in attempting to convert the faithful into godless.  I found Dawkins’ attempt at proselytizing no more or less offensive coming from an atheist than a born-again Christian.  (See my blog column “Missionary Go Home” 8/25/2010.)

I don’t see value in arguing over the existence of God.  That is ultimately an individual question.  No panel of theologians can prove the existence – nor can a panel of atheists disprove it.  I see theologians denying science or atheists disavowing the possibility of anything mystical equally non-productive.  The intersections that matter are when theologians try to dictate to science or atheists want sanitize culture of any presence of religion.  That time would be better spent by theologians speaking to their own followers and leaving the rest of us alone, and atheists limiting their arguments to the inappropriate influence of religion in this secular society.

Atheists make an important contribution to our culture by being the conscience of religion.  Religion does enjoy too much societal protection legally, financially, publicly, and tacitly.  For example, in a capitalistic country, tax breaks are an enormous practical advantage as well as a demonstration of governmental approval.  There is no real reason why churches should be tax-exempt any more than social clubs.  This will be a future column, but my short answer is that if churches or religious organizations are not contributing social services to those outside of their own group, there is no reason for exemption from taxes.  Locally, I see very little difference between the YMCA and LA Fitness, except that the Y has a better swimming pool and is tax-exempt.

I would distill these issues to a few basic questions.  Primarily, the pivotal question is: Do you believe in the supernatural?  If not, then any god arguments are irrelevant, as well as any discussion on humans having a soul or spirit.  Dead is dead.  That is not a subject that is possible to debate.  As impossible as it is to debate, it is pointless to be angry because that is someone’s point of view.  Both books had stories of hate mail and death threats.  There’s no excuse for any person of any religion to stoop to bullying atheists.  You discredit your own religion.  If someone else’s view is that threatening, then your faith doesn’t really amount to much, does it?

Often I conclude these columns with what I personally believe, and I am tempted to do so this time, but I resist that temptation because it is irrelevant.  I read an amazing book by Hitchens that deeply disturbed me in many appropriate ways.  He influenced my thinking but did not change my point of view.  I am grateful such a great thinker lived among us and was unafraid to ask difficult questions that make us uncomfortable.  I would like to say, rest in peace, but that would be disrespectful.  So, Mr. Hitchens, I celebrate your life and contribution to this planet by encouraging tolerance of atheists and promising to read more of what you wrote.

To the religious, I would say that a faith unquestioned is just stupidity.


Faith and the Lost Dog

This column is going to be more personal than what I usually write, and I do not promise a happy ending.  Consider yourself warned.  Don’t worry, I won’t do it often.    It is also a little longer than usual.  I have edited as best I could and I just can’t say what I need to say in fewer words.  And personal column or not, your comments in response are always welcome.

Religion, doctrine, theology, these are all big picture concepts.  What we believe, what we have faith in – that is where the rubber meets the road.  Faith is individual and personal, and not an area where any of us have the right to dictate to each other.  Further, if you are deferring your own personal discernment to others, whether they are friends, spouses, or clergy (especially clergy), then you are shirking responsibility for your own spirituality.  (I don’t mean atheists or agnostics, for they – by definition – are taking a position for themselves.)

My faith is exercised by believing in an eventual good outcome in times of pain and noticing the times of joy and contentment with gratitude.  Just Monday morning I was sitting in my office writing, with my dog Buddy crashed out on the futon looking so content I took a picture.  I remember feeling grateful to have the peace and safe space to read, and write, and be with the unquestioning devotion of Buddy.  Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss,” and I can say that this was a blissful morning.  I don’t have a full-time job and I never seem to have money, but in that moment, life was perfect for me.

I have to ask, is joyful contentment an invitation for Evil?  It seems so.  On Tuesday evening Buddy ran away.  Buddy has epilepsy and I give him a lot medication every day.  He has run twice before, but I sincerely believed we had corrected his lapses in judgment and willingness to cooperate with me.  That being said, there is nothing he loves more than running and running with reckless abandon.  I couldn’t bring myself to keep him constantly tethered to me on a leash.  Our yard is big and sheltered and I had every confidence that I could teach him it was best to stay home.  I was so very wrong.  It was as if Evil whispered in his ear and even as he was looking back at me, he just kept going further away from me until he vanished into suburban hedges.  The last time I saw him was 6:20 p.m. on Tuesday evening.

And that is why I found myself last evening sitting in the backyard of my veterinarian’s office (close to where he was last spotted) from 9:30 p.m. to midnight, writing by flashlight in between meditating and dozing off.  I did this the night before (except for the writing part) and have spent many other hours starting at 5:30 a.m. driving, walking, and sitting search for my missing dog.  Again and again I ask how this is possible when Buddy and I are so connected.  As I write this, it is Buddy’s fifth day in 90-plus degree heat with no food, water, or medication.  Maybe I’ve been watching too many “Charmed” re-runs, but isn’t there some protection for the innocent?  Well, if Evil is an entity with a dark plan for pain, this was the most successful shot at my faith that could have been fired.

In the interests of disclosure, I practice Christianity, though many Christians would not want to claim me.  I’m not really sure about the deity of Jesus and I certainly don’t believe Christianity is the only ultimate truth.  I admit to cursing like a stevedore and loving tequila.  Though I am now with my favorite spouse, I have too many divorces behind me.  (I think you get the picture.)

I do not believe in God the Chess Master, smirking while we all scramble to figure out his mysterious “will” for our lives.  I do believe in karmic justice and every time I get screwed I hope that I live long enough to see some of it.  I also do not believe in a Santa Claus God to whom we submit requests for relief from pain or just bonuses for being such great folks – like a winning lottery ticket.  I do believe in miracles, but most often the miracle is that another human was motivated to do something kind for no personal gain.  That counts, by golly.

If Buddy does not come home safely, or worst of all, if I never actually know what happened to him, then I have to say, Evil won.  That is quite enough to make me question the power of love in the universe.

Remember Chief Seattle told us we are all part of the web of life?  The reverence of that connection is what my relationship with Buddy means to me.  I had an everyday connection to all that is good in the world.  I had a clear understanding of unconditional love.  I knew simple joy.  So if it is the goal of Evil to disrupt and destroy: mission accomplished.  If I never see Buddy again, I expect to go on with my life.  His abrupt and premature departure does not diminish what we had.  It does shake my faith to the core.  I don’t really believe in a personal God, but I also don’t believe in Nothing.  And somewhere in the middle, I was hoping for help in a time of pain for things that are out of my control.  Sort of sums up the human condition, doesn’t it?  Well, we’ll see what happens.

P.S. Don’t tell me if you find a typo.  I haven’t slept much since Tuesday.

Epilogue: As of 7/19/2010  he is not home and no one has seen him since the 15th.