On God

Does God exist?

Well yes, of course, though it’s very unclear what He’s like. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since Christopher Hitchens died. And as between the existence of God and Christopher Hitchens, God has an exciting edge. Generally speaking, the muscular atheists like Hitchens tended to make me favor God.

Richard Dawkins calls God a “moral monster”:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Yikes. God is worse than Hitler. Never mind comparing political opponents to Hitler anymore. Just compare them to God.

This is adolescent nonsense — a rebellion against a caricature the way teenagers rebel against their caricatured view of their parents. And everything Dawkins stridently claims about the God of the Old Testament is a grotesque misreading and misunderstanding of the Old Testament. (See Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God, by Paul Copan.) The God of the Old Testament cared about goodness and wickedness — and the latter was abundant in the Near East before Jesus.

I’m actually more comfortable with the God of the Old Testament, a God with a personality and passion, a God who changes His mind at times, than I am with the ultimate God who emerged from Christian theology — the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, infinitely Good everything entity who strikes me more as a cosmic supercomputer and a placeholder for Everything.

You get one or the other, it seems to me: a God with whom you can have a personal relationship (and who is therefore Great but flawed and evolving) or a Perfect Ultimate God Who is Everything Infinitely Et Cetera — and with Whom, therefore, no meaningful personal relationship is possible. A being who knows everything, can do anything, is everywhere, is always Good — think about that, step by step. Who can relate to that? Who can even conceive it? How is it possible to have a personal relationship with Infinity? That’s the infinite joke.

I grant the stupendous beauty of the Jesus story. Frankly, if I were God, I’d do it something like the Jesus way, where God becomes human. Tremendous and compelling story. I can even see the point of doing it during the Roman empire (as opposed to, say, now, when everything Jesus said would be wasted in a circus of silly pundits, people like me, and New Jersey housewives).

I just don’t get why people have to go through Jesus to get to salvation, what’s the difference between Jesus and God, why God has to be Ultimate Everything when He evidently wasn’t on Earth 2,000 years ago, how God can even be Ultimate Everything and meaningful, why God would make us choose heaven or hell (!) based upon a story, why God of all people would be coy, why God of all people would allow different (false?) stories to be perpetrated by people of abundant goodness, why God of all people would allow billions of people to be perfectly sincere but wrong, with eternal consequences, why God would design a world where sincerity didn’t matter but faithful subscription to one historical story did, why even an empty Deist God, if all religions are true, would matter a whit personally.

As I’ve made plain before, I’m a pro-God agnostic. I’m pretty sure God exists. I just don’t have any evidence for it. My dear brother said to me over the holidays, “just ask God.” Yes. I haven’t been able to do that quite yet. It reminds me of trying to pray back in the day. Tried. Wasn’t talking to anyone except myself. People who experience God — God bless you.

Here’s what I ask of you. Grant that some of us have tried and did not experience God. Treat that as real. Let it be “God’s will” or whatever story you want, but grant us sincerity. Let me be as real and true as you, okay?

And then, pray for me. My dear Hindu friend, Chaggan Patel, said to me when I lived in Kenya, “we survive on the strength of people’s prayers for us.” Maybe so. Pray for me.

Awareness of dying

There is a point in living when you become aware of dying. I don’t mean aware of a disease or any particular ailment. I mean a personal awareness of that dread thing that happens to everyone, an intimacy with the fact of decay that God graciously spares us for most of our lives, despite the fragility of all life always, a grace that gives us the blessed giddiness of imagined immortality — or at least a vomitously happy stretch of time with only blurriness on the other end.

And then time and sentience become in-your-face finite. That stupid vapid phrase — “nothing lasts forever” — it’s true!

The largest and smallest things are finite. Our planet is finite. Our sun and solar system are finite. In five billion years, our sun will exhaust itself, give up, explode, and grow so large that it reaches and destroys the Earth, before shrinking to an ember dwarf of its former self. And even before that, the sun’s steadfastly growing luminosity will extinguish all life on Earth. We could be destroyed by light in as little as a billion and a half years.

Our galaxy, with its hundreds of billions of stars, is finite. We are on a collision course with Andromeda, a much larger galaxy likely to ravage our galaxy and become something new. Even our universe is finite. At some point in the far distant future, all stars finally run out of fuel and die. Many of them persist as smoldering embers for a long time, but life is unsupportable. Sentience disappears. As if we never were.

It’s difficult, to put it mildly, for me to accept this prognosis. The thought of true nothingness, of everything that has been or ever will be, becoming permanently lost in stellar old age sends me reeling into lust for religion. God please give me heaven. Even hell. Anything but nothingness. Any place that remembers. Because the greatest achievement of the universe is memory.

Shortly before my great aunt Dorothy died, she answered a standard social question on the telephone in a disturbing way. “How are you doing?” And she said, with that husky, confident voice I had always known, “not good, Ken, not good,” and she said some other things I don’t remember. But I do remember being struck by her uncomfortably emphatic violation of protocol. We’re always fine. La-la-la, and then, okay, maybe we die, but we’re always fine. And you? Fine, thanks.

Not until later did I understand my great aunt’s words as the simple honesty of someone who knew she wouldn’t celebrate the next Thanksgiving. Even after she died, I felt troubled by that exchange — because I hadn’t become aware of dying. And I couldn’t comprehend how anyone else might confront it.

A little while later, my father with his faltering heart confided that he didn’t look to the future anymore. He found himself thinking mostly about the past. And then he died. Suddenly. The doctor reportedly said he gave up. And I vaguely understood, for a man who had endured a triple bypass and had his rib-cage stretched wide, maybe he just couldn’t accept a life that involved more of that.

My father giving up made a strange sense to me, even though I beat on his grave and wept. My father looking mostly to the past took me longer to understand. My father had become not only aware of dying, but intimately aware of his own dying, just as his aunt Dorothy had. They knew it was over. I sort of understand them now.

Perhaps the strangest thing we do, as life, is die. It makes no sense to be so fulsomely what we are, and then not.

It is a tiny absurdity against the vast absurdity of the universe dying. Every fiber of my being tells me it cannot possibly be that everything simply blinks out someday. Perhaps there is hope in the tiniest and densest point yet conceived by modern physics: the singularity, the true core of a black hole, which physics has yet to fathom.

Because it could be that new universes burst out of the singularity. It could be that our own universe is a big bang belch from a previous singularity. It could be that we keep happening, that we do not finally die after all. Perhaps we could even remember.

And just maybe my father is in heaven, or hell, or in between, or spiritually recycled. Any would give me comfort over the alternative. And if this is the origin of religion, it comes from our deepest place.

On Religion and Politics, Unbelievably…

Here’s an announcement: politicians aren’t actually religious. They pretend to be because they must. And in some cases, they parrot religiosity quite well. But they don’t do that thing that religious people daily and sincerely do and they don’t believe in a personal God. At best, they’re Deists, like Thomas Jefferson, and therefore talk God-talk well enough.

Accept this. And then move on to the truly critical political proposition that religious orientation is not an issue in the 2012 election. Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith is as irrelevant as Barack Obama’s suspect Muslim faith. Yes, one is manifest and the other is earnest gossip — but they share a profoundly un-American obsession with the religious orientation of public servants.

Over two hundred years ago, the Founding Fathers quashed discussion of religious orientation as legitimate dialogue in political contests. And they did so wisely and resolutely. In the same clause where they required fealty to the Constitution, they declared any religious test off-limits. The juxtaposition of these two isn’t coincidental.

Article VI, Clause 3, United States Constitution:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

In sum, affirmation of the Constitution is an absolute — and by the way, do this, and then your religious orientation is irrelevant. The United States Constitution is large enough to embrace all religions — but trumps all of them as to loyalty. Affirming it subordinates any religious idiosyncrasies for purposes of public office.

That such a profoundly wise mediation of religion and politics could have been accomplished in the 18th century is another testament to the grandeur of the United States Constitution. From two hundred years ago, we hear this, and we best accede: shut up about Mormonism and Islam.

This discussion is necessary, of course, because, Southern Baptist Pastor Jeffress, supporter of Rick Perry, absurdly declared the Mormon faith a non-Christian “cult.” And progressive blogger Jeffrey Goldberg predicts a leftist gush of anti-Mormonism:

If Romney wins the nomination, we will see a rush of anti-Mormon propaganda — generated by secular liberals, not evangelicals. Anti-Romney leftists, the sort of people who would be loath to utter an unfavorable word about Islamic doctrine, will expend a great deal of energy and money bringing to light the most peculiar aspects of Mormon theology and practice, in an effort to convince evangelicals that the man leading the Republican Party is a harebrained heathen.

Yes, sadly, that’s politics. And our obligation, notwithstanding, is to stay sober. We best honor the Constitution by shutting down even the first hints of religious bigotry in this election.

And Pastor Jeffress is an embarrassment to religion and politics.

Hate Crimes 2009

What are we to make of hate crimes in America?  The Department of Justice provides a little insight with its most recent report on 2009 hate crimes.

A little perspective first.  What constitutes a “hate crime” in America is the lighter side of official policy in many other countries.  A hate crime against a homosexual in America is despicable.  I note only that organized opposition to hate might be well directed toward places beyond our borders where homosexuals are officially flogged or killed.  I note further that Protestants, Catholics and Coptic Christians are subject to rampant hate crimes, often officially sanctioned, in several countries.  Some solicitude with respect to this magnitude of hate may also be appropriate.

Sexual orientation commanded a substantial swath of the hate crimes, but not quite so much as religious hate crimes.  As compared to 1,223 incidents of sexual orientation hate crimes, there were 1,303 incidents of religious hate crimes.  Muslims suffered 107 of these incidents, Jews 931.  “Other” (not Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Atheist, or Agnostic) suffered 109.

I’m not sure what “Other” means, but they need representation.

The notion that Muslims are getting hated in America is absurd.  Or if they are, here and there, Jews are dealing with eight+ times the hate.  Let Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, Atheists, Agnostics, and all other religions unite in vocal opposition to the comparative epidemic of anti-Semitic hate.

Interestingly, there is no category for gender hate crimes.  But we know there are instances of men hating women and acting it out, for example, beating and stoning women to death for alleged and unproven acts of adultery.  Not in America thankfully.  Gender advocacy in America might properly pay a bit of proportionate attention to the wanton slaughter of women, along with the insistence on “equal pay” for unequal presence in the workplace.

Hate is detestable whatever its source and whatever its object.  It corrodes the soul and shrivels the human.  We have haters in America, but comparatively few, and they are marginalized.

Zero tolerance for hate, yes?  Let’s truly and fairly do that — and fairly lift our gaze to places where hate costs lives.

Islam Is an Adult Religion: So Get Over “Burn a Koran Day”

I had resolved not to weigh in on the Pastor Terry Jones’ Koran-burning controversy because, notwithstanding its utterly unrepresentative insignificance in our culture, (a) virtually every Democrat and Republican of consequence, the White House, the Department of Defense, and the FBI, did weigh in; (b) it never actually happened; and (c) it was such a silly idea that to give it any further notoriety seemed unproductive.

Oh yes, and to “condemn” it would have been so profoundly belaboring the obvious as to risk comparison with the condemnation of the torrential rains by everyone except Noah’s family.

But the story persists.  A resolution submitted by Pakistan for the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) asks the UN Human Rights Council to speak out against what it dubbed “the recent call by an extremist group to organize a ‘Burn a Koran Day.’”  Oh my, wee Pastor Jones in Florida has gone global.

The resolution is part of a larger effort by the Organization of the Islamic Conference to have the U.N. recognize “Islamophobia” as racism and open to challenge under international law, and to recognize “defamation of religion.”

In Europe, Canada and Australia, where there is an insufficient First Amendment culture, there is capitulation.  Racial and religious “hate-speech” bans have become the vehicle for prosecution of citizens who criticize Islam.  Criticism of the Koran and Islam has put Geert Wilders on trial in the Netherlands, and led to the conviction of a German man for the “sacrilegious” treatment of the word “Koran” (not the text itself).  Prosecutors in Finland, Canada, and the Netherlands have scoured the internet for anti-Islamic comments.  In France, Canada, Norway, Austria and Italy, citizens have been tried for inciting “religious hostility” and “insulting religious sensibilities” because of their critiques of Islam or jihad.

Is Islam an adult or a child religion?  If Islam is an adult religion, and it is, then the proposed resolution is both absurd and should be offensive to Muslims.

Does Islam have the robustness and resilience of Christianity or Judaism?  NO, scream the proponents of special solicitude for Islam.  Islam is special, delicate, its billion adherents deserving of extra sensitivity and special rules.  Nonsense!  How condescending, how literally “Islamophobic,” is this determination to indulge Islam as a petulant child in the adult world of all other religions.

Because Muslims, unlike any other religion, riot over perceived affronts, because Muslims, unlike any other religion, issue fatwas against, and kill, Muslims and non-Muslims allegedly guilty of blasphemy, because Muslims, unlike any other religion in the world, get incomparably angry and homicidal about God and religion, the rest of the world must demonstrate special sensitivity, with special indulgent rules, for Muslims?  Nonsense — and profoundly disrespectful of Islam.

But the point, comes the rejoinder, is that most Muslims do not riot, issue fatwas, kill blasphemers, or get incomparably angry about God and religion.  So we must not treat Muslims generally based upon the behavior of their delinquents.

Precisely.  We must distinguish between the two.  We must treat the delinquents as the petulant, murderous children they are, and we must respect the rest as adults.  In the adult world, there is no longer any such thing as “blasphemy.”  God grew up.  He doesn’t get his feelings hurt.  Neither should His followers.

In the adult world, we don’t wink at “Piss Christ” and other extraordinary disrespect for Christianity, and then get morally indignant, on condescending behalf of our little Muslim brothers and sisters, over wee insults to Islam, Allah, Mohammed or the Koran.  In the adult world, we treat our Muslim brothers and sisters with respect, and assume that Islam is likewise a robust and resilient religion — capable of weathering insult (though blasphemy is punishable by imprisonment or death in many of the members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference).  In the adult world, Islam needs no more solicitude than Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, or atheism.  It simply warrants equal respect.  And equal responsibility.

In the adult world, petulant, murderous children get spanked — primarily by their parents.  That is why many people expect a more robust parenting by Muslims themselves — a concerted and systematic determination by Muslims to shut down the multiple organs of Muslim terror, hate and intolerance.

But what parents are motivated to discipline their crap child when the community he is terrorizing responds with overwrought generosity and outrage at any insult to the parents?  Quiet status quo looks like a good deal.

A sensitive parent, in this situation, might understand that what the liberal community is really doing is saying, there, there, little one, we believe in tolerance, even for people like you.  A sensitive Muslim, in this situation, might wish to join the adult world, eschew liberal condescension, rise up against the horror of Islamism, and be treated with genuine respect.

I have written that there is no current greater courage than Muslim courage.  Those Muslims who do rise up in their Muslim countries against oppression are heroes.  Those Muslims who do rise up in Western countries in vocal opposition to Islamism — and are often then reviled by their communities — are heroes.

These Muslim heroes should be the object of our solicitude — not petty insults to the Koran.

[Also published at The Daily Caller, with some lively comments.]

Our Secular Presidency

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

That is our Declaration of Independence, the 1776 document that set our new nation on its risky course of challenging the preeminent 18th century superpower.  Our beginning could have been — arguably was likely to be — aborted.  The odds were against us.  Ultimately, America was the only British colony over the course of four centuries and a British empire spanning the globe to win its independence by war.

When President Obama recently addressed the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, he quoted that Declaration passage as follows (clip at 22:30):  “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal [pause], endowed with certain unalienable Rights:  Life and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

I’ve much less interest in either the religious or the political point than the rhetorical point.  The President’s paraphrase is interesting for two reasons: it preserves the politically incorrect “Men” and omits the less politically incorrect “Creator.”  “Men,” no hiccup; God, hiccup.

Why would this President — assailed in various corners for irreligiosity and Islamic sympathies — edit the Declaration of Independence to omit reference to the “Creator”?  Certainly that benign reference offends no one, and it is as non-denominational as it was possible to be in the 18th century (as Deist Thomas Jefferson precisely intended).

This is the President who wrote, in The Audacity of Hope, that he chose to follow Jesus because “what was intellectual and what was emotional joined, and the belief in the redemptive power of Jesus Christ, that he died for our sins, that through him we could achieve eternal life — but also that, through good works we could find order and meaning here on Earth and transcend our limits and our flaws and our foibles — I found that powerful.”

Really?

Most of the religion of politicians is fake.  They pretend so as not to offend.  They act the part because the electoral damage for failing to act the part would be severe.  Politicians, the aspirants to power, believe first in power and its culture, and distantly third, in God.

So the President purports to believe in the redemptive power of Jesus Christ, that he died for our sins, and that through him we can achieve eternal life — now that’s down-home religion — but he hiccups at referring to “the Creator” when he quotes the Declaration of Independence?

That hiccup comes from a thoroughly secular mind.  There is no religious sensibility here.  For the burgeoning swath of Americans who believe the President is a Muslim, take comfort, he is not.  His mind and heart are thoroughly secular, incapable of genuine religious devotion.  His sympathies for religions are political, not religious, impulses.

President Obama was the first president to mention non-believers in an inaugural address when he said, “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers.”  Another interesting phrasing and sequencing.

We’re actually a nation overwhelmingly of Christians — 78.4% — compared to 0.6% Muslims, yet that is the President’s chosen coupling.  Jews, rhetorically cast with Hindus and non-believers, comprise 1.7% of our population, roughly three times the number of Muslims.  Buddhists, who are unmentioned, comprise 0.7% of the population, more than Muslims.  “Unitarians and other liberal faiths” also log in at 0.7%.

The President’s solicitude for Islam may or may not be a good thing, but it is political, not religious.  His sympathy for non-believers — who are 10.3% of the population (counting agnostics, atheists, and “secular unaffiliated”) may well be sincere.

UPDATE (Oct. 20, 2010): And he does it again. Omits the Creator.

The March of Monotheism

First Things features an interesting review on the common Abrahamic origin of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — but doesn’t conclude that the common origin is a viable basis for “getting along.”  Nice sentence:  “Living religions positively vibrate with conviction, and in this case, as in most others, points of contact tend to generate friction.”

I was struck, however, by a detail in the review: “some medieval interpreters see the Jewish people leading the nations toward monotheism.”

That God would favor monotheism makes sense.  (Indeed, that the gods would favor their various versions of monotheism makes sense. As a cultural phenomenon, monotheism had a competitive edge, notwithstanding the cultural hegemony 2,000 years ago of the nominally polytheistic Roman empire.)

But as the Pauline epistles amply demonstrate, insular Judaism (like Hinduism, but unlike Buddhism and what would become Christianity and Islam) had ceased to become an evangelical vehicle. So if the Chosen People were to be the propagators of monotheism, then they needed a version of Judaism that appealed to Gentiles.

Christianity, with its polytheistic-co-opting Plural Monotheism (in the doctrine of the Trinity), became the perfect vehicle.  With the conquest of Christianity, the purer monotheism of Islam (there is no god but God) became another perfect vehicle. But let it be said, Islam’s more rigorous monotheism would not have been culturally and politically feasible but for the power of, first, Judaism, to insist theocratically upon the supremacy of the one God, and second, Christianity to achieve a universal appeal and wean diverse people away from polytheism.  The sequence of gradual monotheistic hegemony makes perfect sense.

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