Posts Tagged ‘Religion’

Life Remains a Blessing

March 20, 2014

galaxy

Sentient consciousness is a marvelous gift; I’m really glad I exist.

I would be happy to thank Someone for every glorious breath that life grants me; I just can’t quite figure out whom to thank. God? Which one?

I’m a devout deist because my Creator has endowed me with the type of brain which renders me incapable of experiencing a connection to an anthropomorphized God. I can’t imagine ever giving myself over to the God of the Christians, for example. First of all, a God who wishes to be exalted by the likes of me would be all too human for me to take seriously. Moreover, there are billions of people on Earth who believe in reincarnation while billions of other people believe in heaven. These are two mutually incompatible outcomes of existence. Maybe billions of people are right and billions of people are wrong. Who knows?  Fortunately, it’s not my task in life to figure these things out.

To be clear, I am not one of those New Atheists who hates God for not existing. On the contrary, I encounter many things in Christianity that are good and beautiful. I’m all for fellowship, good works, humility, and forgiveness; furthermore, the Peace Christians are my heroes. (And I really don’t think grownups should have heroes.)

But the universe got along just fine for a long, long time before human beings came onto the scene, so it’s obvious that Existence really isn’t about us.

For some reason or another, human beings have developed the capacity to appreciate the fact that we exist. At any rate, for me, life remains a blessing, as W. H. Auden notes in “As I Walked Out One Evening,” his bleak and lovely meditation on Christianity

This brings me to the Christian concept of grace. Although there is much bickering over the theological specifics of grace within and between Christian denominations, grace is basically the notion that human beings have done nothing to deserve the love and mercy bestowed upon us by God. Instead of arguing about how loving and merciful God actually is, I will simply concede that our existence is unearned. Life is a mysterious take-it-or-leave-it proposition. And griping about how life should be different is a silly waste of our precious time on Earth.

As Robert Pinsky notes in “Family Values,” his bleak and lovely poem about resentment and cupidity,

nobody gets what they/ Deserve more than everybody else.

Does anyone deserve to have an unhappy childhood? Of course not.  But this world is not about fairness.

The universe wasn’t built for us. But it’s a spectacular privilege to be granted the slight and brief glimpse that our limited consciousness affords.

I don’t “hope for higher raptures, when life’s day is done.” The physical world is sufficiently marvelous for me.

I’ll leave the final word on grace to Kris Kristofferson.

by Richard W. Bray

All the Suffering the World Can Feel: The Pain and the Glory of Graham Greene’s Catholicism

September 2, 2012

wwCrucifix

About twenty years ago I entered a Catholic church for the first time.  It was a funeral mass for the father of a colleague delivered at Our Lady of the Assumption, a small church in Claremont, California.  I felt almost suffocated by the large, bleeding Christ hanging from a cross by the altar with its dreary promise of agony.

My first thought was: “Someone should really cover that thing up.”

My second thought was: “How many times do they kneel during a service?”  Herb (an Evangelical from work) and I kept looking over at each other as we struggled to figure out when to sit and when to stand and when to kneel.  (I had not been expecting an aerobic workout.)  Afterwords Herb said, “Damn, I’ve never been in a church with so much kneeling.”

My third thought was: “These people are incredibly masochistic.”

Over the years I’ve attended masses in other Catholic churches for various reasons.  There is usually less kneeling than there was that day at OLA and crucifixes are generally less prominently displayed, but pain is always the dominant motif.  This has long perplexed me.

With the help of Graham Greene, I’m finally beginning to appreciate the allure of a pain-stricken God.  Perhaps the agony of Christ is the mechanism by which Catholics negotiate the incomprehensible chasm between the finite and the infinite.  (As the saying goes, a God who does not suffer is insufferable.)

Sarah Miles, the self-loathing, self–described “bitch and a fake” from The End of the Affair, Greene’s marvelously–constructed novel of wartime infidelity, is drawn to Roman Catholicism despite her strong misgivings (76).  Similar to my own revulsion for the celebration of physical pain in the figure of a massive, bleeding Christ right next to the alter, Sarah “hated the statues, the crucifix, all the emphasis on the human body.” Sarah was “trying to escape from the human body and all it needed” (87).

Sarah Miles’ lover, the God-hating utterly recalcitrant atheist Maurice Bendrix who narrates The End of the Affair, provides some cogent elucidations of Greene’s idiosyncratic variety of Catholicism.  Bendrix explains why agony is a much more substantial emotion than joy:

The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness.  In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other.  But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity (36).

Along with fear, pain is the overriding, omnipresent truth of existence for all sentient beings.  Pain, as Emily Dickinson noted, has “infinite realms,” and “new periods of pain” are always foreseeable.  Pain has no ending, and its existence predates human consciousness on Earth by millions of years:

Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there was
A time when it was not.

Nobody really knew how long a second of pain could be.  It might last a whole purgatory–or for ever(133).  Thus laments the Whiskey Priest, the forlorn and touchingly human hero from Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory.  The Whiskey Priest is the last practicing Padre in the Mexican state of Tabasco during the rabidly anticlerical governor Tomás Garrido Canabal’s reign of terror when Catholicism was banned and every church in the state was shuttered.

From Greene’s perspective, a hapless drunkard who impregnates a parishioner is the ideal hero in this fallen world because:

It was for this world that Christ had died; the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater glory lay around the death.  It was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilization—it needed a God to die for the half–hearted and the corrupt (97).

There is much paradox here:  We need a perfect God who is also human to deliver us from our imperfection.  And we also require our sin-hungry flesh in order to fully appreciate God’s perfection.  As the Whiskey Priest is “praying against [the] pain” of his own corruption, he comes to the realization that through death and resurrection, “[t]his is what we escape at no cost at all, sacrificing an unimportant motion of the body (66).

Alden Pyle is Graham Greene’s repugnant eponymous Quiet American CIA officer who callously perpetuates human suffering in the name of something he calls Democracy.  When explosives supplied by Pyle kill several civilians, he dismissively notes that “[i]t was a pity, but you can’t always hit your target.  Anyway, they died in the right cause (171).”  Pyle is truly monstrous because “he was as incapable of imagining pain or danger to himself as he was incapable of conceiving the pain he might cause others” (53).

Suffering is the cornerstone of Graham Green’s unique strain of Catholicism.  I am a devout deist who will never share Greene’s faith.  But, paradoxically, his novels inform my existential humanist perspective in ways that no atheist author ever could.  And all humanists would do well to remain cognizant of Thomas Fowler’s important observation: “Suffering is not increased by numbers: one body can contain all the suffering the world can feel” (TQA 175).

by Richard W. Bray

Listening to the Whirlwind: Theodicy for Deists

May 26, 2012

We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows

—Robert Frost

Ever tried to talk to a grasshopper?  Of course not.  Yet the moral, intellectual, and existential divide between God and humanity is obviously greater than the gulf between people and insects.  So why do so many human beings expect to hear from God?

Our Judeo-Christian heritage leads us to assume that God is both creator and creation.  (God is in all things but somehow He is also an omnipotent overseer.)  We assume that God must be perfection.  We assume that God must be infinite in relation to both time and space.  And then we expect this marvelous conglomeration of mystery and paradox to speak to us as we would speak to one another.

Unfortunately, God exists in a realm so many notches above our level of understanding that we utterly lack the necessary equipment to understand Him.  Attempting to contemplate God with a human brain makes as much sense as trying to cut the sun in half with a pair of scissors.

Jon Dryden eloquently expresses the folly:

How can the less the Greater comprehend?
Or finite Reason reach Infinity?
For what cou’d Fathom GOD were more than He.

This simple observation makes me deist. (Although I should hasten to add that Dryden explicitly rejects deism in Religio Laici.)

I don’t know what God is; I will never know what God is, and I’m not going to waste my precious time on earth trying to figure out what God is.

Does this make me a candidate for Winston Niles Rumfoord’s  Church of God the Utterly Indifferent?  My answer is an unequivocal maybe.  (Getting mired in a swamp of paradox is perhaps the greatest peril of groping after God.)  Maybe God cares about humanity; maybe God doesn’t care.

My fellow human beings, however, tend to assume that God cares a great deal about us.  And Christians anthropomorphize God to the point that He can actually feel our pain because a God who cannot suffer is insufferable.

But if God loves us so much, why is our world full of suffering and injustice? Unfortunately, there is no humanly comprehensible answer to this question. But there is an entire branch of theology dedicated to “reconciling God’s traditional characteristics of omnibenevolence, omnipotence and omniscience (all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing, respectively) with the occurrence of evil in the world.”

Humans have been looking for someone to blame for our lot since Gilgamesh. And as long as we insist upon anthropomorphizing God, we are stuck in the cul-de-sac of asking ourselves why the universe is the way it is.

Interestingly, the Old Testament provides an answer for this question which is as profound as it is unsatisfying:

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.

Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it?

Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof;

When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb?….

Hast thou commanded the morning since thy days; and caused the dayspring to know his place….

Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? or hast thou walked in the search of the depth?

Have the gates of death been opened unto thee? or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death?

Hast thou perceived the breadth of the earth? declare if thou knowest it all.

Where is the way where light dwelleth? and as for darkness, where is the place thereof….

Who hath divided a watercourse for the overflowing of waters, or a way for the lightning of thunder;

To cause it to rain on the earth, where no man is; on the wilderness, wherein there is no man;

To satisfy the desolate and waste ground; and to cause the bud of the tender herb to spring forth?

Hath the rain a father? or who hath begotten the drops of dew?  (Job 38)

So God’s answer to it all is: It’s none of your damn business and you wouldn’t be capable of understanding it if I told you anyway.

Or, as the wonderful gospel Midrash (You Can’t Hurry God) He’s Right on Time succinctly notes:

I’m God all by myself/And I don’t need nobody else.”

This vast, spectacular universe is not about us.  But then again, of course it is.  (Another paradox.)

If we read the Book of Job imagining God and Satan sitting in a couple of celestial director’s chairs as they toy with Job for sport, then we must conclude that God is a sick, sad, wicked creep.

But once we reject the silly notion that God is merely some sort of human being who lives in outer space, the Whirlwind begins to make a hell of a lot of sense.

by Richard W. Bray

This Business of Saving Souls

April 20, 2012

Richard Wright

This business of saving souls has no ethics“, writes Richard Wright as he recalls how the entire weight of his community was brought down upon him for rejecting Christianity. Wright is certainly not the first person to point out hypocrisies committed in God’s name, and the cogency of Wright’s irony exposes his utter contempt for organized religion. As the author sees it, Christianity is merely one of several methods which society employs to enforce submission upon the masses in general and upon Richard Wright in particular.

Black Boy is overflowing with social forces designed to break Richard Wright down—domestic violence, white terrorism, the media, the school system and the black church all conspire to bridle his spirit. This only makes him angrier and more productive.

For a man who wears the scars of nonconformity as a badge, Wright’s unwillingness to submit to God is perfectly consistent. Like any memoir, Black Boy is an amalgamation of fact, fantasy, and recollection. But this particular autobiography has a remarkably consistent theme: Always the rebel, Richard Wright heroically reveals all forms of human hypocrisy and confronts every injustice perpetrated against him. The institutional repression of the church is just another cross for him to bear.

Wright’s descriptions of the black church seethe with hostility as he chooses to see only the most negative aspects of religion. He is “disgusted” by the “snobbery, clannishness, gossip, intrigue, petty class rivalry, and conspicuous displays of cheap clothing” which he encounters in church. Of course, with the possible exception of “cheap clothing,” these phenomena are apparent in all human institutions. It’s just the way people are. And this vituperation for the church is a function of Wright’s deep–seated misanthropy.

It is disheartening that Wright’s quest to slay all dragons prevents him from experiencing the virtuous aspects of organized Christianity. He is absolutely blind to the worldly fellowship, charity, comfort, hope and spiritual fulfillment religion has to offer. And the immense beauty of religious art and music are completely lost on him. As Wright sees it, “(t)he naked will to power seemed always to walk in the wake of a hymn”.

But this cannot be dismissed as a simple outgrowth of Wright’s Marxist/humanist philosophy. Many confirmed atheists are willing to concede that organized religion can be beneficial to society in various ways despite the plethora of grievous wrongs committed in its name. (Full disclosure: I am a devout deist, but I reject the smugness with which many of the so-called New Atheists attack religion.) The roots of Wright’s profound enmity towards the black church stem from the part of him which could never find solace in groups, not even in a political party which reflected his beliefs.

Richard W. Bray

Some Thoughts on The God Delusion

April 22, 2010

Richard Wright

Some Thoughts on The God Delusion

After patient and painstaking work he convinced his friend that his former beliefs were untenable, that science was indeed queen. But to his horror, Krummie had to confess to me, he soon discovered that he had succeeded only in making his friend supremely unhappy. He thought at first that this might pass, but when, after a year, the man remained miserably depressed, Krumwiede resolved, he told me, never again to tamper with a man’s hereditary convictions (89).

The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams

I’m a devout deist, and I’m generally happy about the recent trend of books promoting atheism. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins is an erudite argument cogently delivered with much wit, and Dawkins is less overtly hostile to religion than many of the other purveyors of Atheist Manifestos recently on the bestseller lists.

Here’s Dawkins quoting Einstein (a great deist who is often mischaracterized as a theist):

I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings (18).

If I could pick any creed, I would be a Liberal Secular Jew, but I’m not sure how to make that conversion. This brings me (sort of) to a friendly argument the author had with Robert Winston, whom Dawkins describes as a “respected pillar of British Jewry.”

When I pressed him, he said that Judaism provided a good discipline to help him structure his life and lead a good one. Perhaps it does; but that, of course, has not the smallest bearing on the truth value of its supernatural claims (14).

Goodness, Gracious, Sakes Alive, Mr. Dawkins! People, even scientists, believe all sorts of wacky things, so I’m not even sure how we could ever come to a consensus on what a “truth value” is. Mr. Winston’s personal beliefs about a deity neither pick my pocket nor break my leg. I’m glad to hear that he’s a decent bloke.

When Dawkins looks for “Direct Advantages of Religion,” he doesn’t see much, although he does concede that it has inspired much great art. But Dawkins does not believe that people should be comforted by mere beliefs which are obvious poppycock to the trained scientist. Dawkins quotes ardent atheist George Bernard Shaw:

The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one (167).

Dawkins makes no effort to hide his condescension, which is a common trait among the New Atheists. Denis Dutton, another God-wrestling scientist, believes that nonbelievers should refer to ourselves as “brights,” an appellation which clearly implies that those who don’t agree with us are stupid. (And there’s nothing wrong with the word Freethinker.)

Lots of good and wonderful and beautiful things come from organized religion, and I’m not just talking about Verdi, Take 6, and El Greco. Organized religion promotes fellowship and improves people’s lives in various ways.

But some people just can’t stand it. Richard Wright, for example, was “disgusted” by the “snobbery, clannishness, gossip, intrigue, petty class rivalry, and conspicuous displays of cheap clothing” which he encountered in church (151). The beauty of the music and rituals is completely invisible to him. As Wright saw things, “[t]he naked will to power seemed always to walk in the wake of a hymn” (136).

I’ll bet Christopher Hitchens wishes he’d said that.

by Richard W. Bray

Me and Michael Medved

October 5, 2009

Me and Michael Medved

Like his reactionary radio compatriot Dr. Laura, Michael Medved casts himself as a paladin of “judeo-christian” values, which seems rather curious to this particular third-generation nonbeliever. And I would guess that even the most politically conservative American Jews would find Medved’s peculiar avocation to be ill-advised at best when you consider how often anti-Semitism has been held up as a “Christian virtue” over the last two millennia. But Medved took his curious brand of self-flagellating philo-Christianity to a new level when he suggested that American Jews really shouldn’t get so worked up about Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which is, after all, fundamentally a tribute to Christian piety. This all brings me to the brush with greatness I experienced with Mr. Medved a few years back:

So there I am at my local Border’s in Montclair, California, listening to the latest Burt Bacharach tribute cd, when I looked up and saw a familiar face. It took me a second to figure out who it was.

“Do I know that guy?” I thought. Then it hit me—It was that reactionary movie reviewer creep, Michael Medved. It really is weird to see one of those little talking heads in person, outside of the idiot box.

So I took off my headphones and sauntered on over to the edge of the crowd—it wasn’t a crowd exactly, perhaps a dozen or so people. Medved was hawking his new book (Saving Childhood) about how The Media, public schools and radical left-wing textbook publishers are terrifying our children into believing that our world is on the brink of an ecological catastrophe. Unfortunately for Medved, this new book, which I’m sure he worked very hard on, was not selling very well, particularly in relation to his previous book which was about how Hollywood scorns (you guessed it) “traditional Judeo-Christian values”. The scanty sales of the book he was peddling, coupled with the sparseness of his audience, seem to have triggered a rather unattractive side of the author’s personality.

Medved began by offering some examples of how textbooks are designed to terrify children into becoming rabid environmentalists. Had I chosen to speak, my first point would have been that it was obvious that Medved had done an extremely selective examination of said textbooks, a topic upon which I, as an elementary-school teacher, could have spoken to with some authority. However, I would have conceded the point that there is never a good excuse for frightening the kids, even if the world really were going to hell in a bucket.

But like a coward, I stood in silence. (Or perhaps it was wisdom and prudence which kept me silent. As Castiglione noted, “Every vice has its corresponding virtue.”) Anyhow, I continued to listen to the second part of Medved’s argument, which was basically that Global Warming is really just a bunch of hype.

At this point, a young women in the audience had the temerity to question some of his points, and Medved completely lost it.

“How old are you?” He thundered.

“I really don’t see what that has to do with anything?” The young lady wisely and bravely responded.

“Just answer me!” He continued to shout.

“Nineteen.”

“Nineteen! This is nothing personal, but at nineteen a person simply doesn’t have the experience to…”

“Are you saying that my opinions are invalid simply because of my…”

“You are being very rude!” Medved cut her off. “Do you know the scientific background of the people who signed the Kyoto Protocol? Do you? Most of them were behavioral scientists!”

At this point, Medved looked up at me at the outskirts of his diminishing audience. I grimaced, slowly shook my head back and forth, and walked away.

When I got home that night, I went over the discussion several times in my head, coming up with lots of wonderful rejoinders to Medved’s rant. For example: “Even if what you say about the scientific credentials of the Kyoto signers were actually true, there are plenty of real scientist who believe that Global warming is a real threat.” But I didn’t say anything when I had the chance, and I left that poor young girl to fend for herself against the maniacal Mr. Medved. Maybe I really am a writer.

by Richard W. Bray

Fantasy Christians

August 21, 2009

Fantasy Christians

Much has been made of the notion that Americans tend to be “Cafeteria Christians” who accept the strictures that aren’t too onerous (Murder is wrong—unless it is done by our government), and ignore or revise the ones which are more difficult to live with.  For example, what percent of churchgoing Americans do you suppose actually remain virgins until they get married?  I would bet that even the majority of evangelical Christians would ultimately agree with the following assertion, whether they’re willing to admit it or not:

“Premarital sex is usually immoral (unless, of course, you really love the person and you are definitely planning on getting married.)”

And how many Americans who attend church regularly, even the most legalistic among them, actually believe that God sends people to hell for working on Sundays?  (That would include, of course, everyone in the NFL)  So really, the majority of people who go to church feel that some Commandments are more important than others, and most Christians, again even including self-identified evangelicals, would consider someone who actually attempts to live by all the strictures laid out in the Book of Leviticus to be somewhat fanatical.  (It’s interesting how conservative Christians get so worked up about the prohibitions on homosexuality, but when it comes to eating shellfish, not so much.  And Jesus never said anything about homosexuality, but He went on and on about the evils of divorce, another point of hypocrisy for so many conservative Christians.)

The essential point here is that the overwhelming majority of the people you will find in church on any giving Sunday are indeed Cafeteria Christians because they choose to ignore several aspects of His teachings which they find inconvenient.  As a devout deist, I have no dog in this particular fight, but I do find it amusing.  However, this essay isn’t really about Cafeteria Christians.

So I will now turn my attention to a situation which I find much more compelling, a peculiarly American phenomenon which I will henceforth refer to as “Fantasy Christians.”  My working definition of a Fantasy Christian is someone who attends church rarely, if ever, has only the most rudimentary understanding of the major tenets of the faith, yet insists on thinking of himself as a Christian primarily because he is a decent human being who lives in a “Christian Nation” (as if the God of the entire universe recognizes manmade borders on this puny little planet located out in the boonies of His universe.)

As a proud egghead who spends way too much time thinking about such things, I am dismayed how it rarely occurs to the Fantasy Christian that religion is ultimately an “all or nothing at all” proposition.  Being “sort of” Christian is akin to being “somewhat” pregnant.  Christianity is a creed based on a specific book.   If you haven’t actually read what’s in the Bible, then your “Christianity” is a tabula rasa, becoming whatever you want it to be.  This is why we often come across such airheaded statements as “God is love” (that would be news to the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah, the people who perished in the Great Flood, and so many other people whom God brags about smiting).

If I were to stop eating meat, it wouldn’t automatically make me a Buddhist, but this is how so many Fantasy Christians think.  They believe that if they’re basically nice people who do the right thing at least fifty-one percent of the time, their slot in heaven is reserved.  When they really want something, like a promotion with a corner office, they will probably silently invoke the name of Jesus, not realizing that begging God for stuff is actually a rather pagan approach to religion.  (Colman McCarthy, a very serious Catholic who has devoted his life to working for peace and conflict resolution, says that he prays in order to ask what God wants from him, rather than asking God for particular favors.)

Of course, there are myriad ways to interpret the Bible, but it really helps when you actually know what’s in the book.  If your belief in God is not firmly rooted in the actual teachings of an established religion, then what you call belief is nothing more than “imaginary friendism.”  He can be whatever you want Him (or Her) to be.  The Fantasy Christians really don’t offend me.  (Hell, you can worship your Teddy Bear for all I care.) But I imagine this whole phenomenon must really irk sincere Christians who take their religion seriously.

by Richard W. Bray