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.


“Is the black church the answer to liberal prayers?”

That’s the Washington Post headline of an interesting and somewhat disturbing Thanksgiving Day piece by Lisa Miller. The column follows with pronouncements from African-American theologians and academicians who focus on “justice,” and Jesus as a class warrior, and this provocative gem from Obery Hendricks, a Bible professor at Union Theological Seminary: political conservatives who call themselves Christians but oppose government programs that help the poor are not, in any meaningful way, Christians.

Miller first cites James Cone of the Union Theological Seminary, who authored Black Theology and Black Power (1969) with inspiration from Malcolm X, and who in turn inspired Rev. Jeremiah Wright — conspicuously without supplying anything Cone said or thought (so let me): “Whether the American system is beyond redemption we will have to wait and see. But we can be certain that black patience has run out, and unless white America responds positively to the theory and activity of Black Power, then a bloody, protracted civil war is inevitable.” [Black Theology and Black Power, p.143.]

Now there’s a plan, and certainly an answer to (someone’s) prayer: marry the left to ninja super-liberal class-warfare Jesus, hint at civil war, and for good measure, call some conservative Christians not really Christians at all. That should trigger a gush of electoral success.

This shallow pastiche of Black Liberation Theology, coupled with the suggestion that it offers political guidance to the 21st century left, misunderstands religion and politics at many levels.

First, the sweeping use of “black church” should give pause — as though “black church” means something ideologically uniform (or uniform in any other way for that matter), as opposed to churches attended predominantly by African-Americans. This is precisely the religious and political stereotype of African-Americans to which so many African-Americans and others deeply objected when Rev. Jeremiah Wright was portrayed as typical of the “black church.”

There is a political contingent on the right and a political contingent on the left who want very much, for separate reasons, to pigeon-hole the “black church” as angry black-Jesus-warriors against “oppression” and “rich people.” And that’s simply not the reality of the range of black churches in America.

The right contingent and the left contingent are equally vapid, using African-Americans as a uniform political symbol — at a moment in history when African-Americans are emerging in mainstream American perception as diverse in the same ways as Americans are diverse (thanks in no small measure to the emergence of credible black conservatives who successfully weather the storm of opprobrium from disgusted liberals and their own communities).

Second, the facile equation of historical African-American oppression with the modern grievances of the left should give pause. The horrible history of slavery, racism, lynching, ghettoism and oppression in America confers upon African-Americans a unique narrative. Similarly, the Holocaust — the genocidal slaughter, ghettoism, and oppression of mid-20th-century Europe and elsewhere — confers upon Jews a unique narrative. African-Americans and Jews are understandably resistant to lots of piggy-backing on these narratives — particularly when the piggy-backing comes from loud political groups that suffered nothing even remotely approaching slavery or genocide.

Even the African-Americans and Jews who are themselves part of loud political groups advocating for some modern notion of “justice,” I would surmise, privately wince at specious conscriptions of their narratives. Thus, for example, have many African-Americans (and others) chafed at the blithe comparison of the modern gay rights movement to the 1960s civil rights movement. Gays “may want to cast their fight in civil-rights terms, and a lot of people are buying it. But not the faith community and especially not the black community,” says Bishop Harry Jackson, whose Hope Christian Church has a flock of 3,000 in the Washington, D.C. area.

And there’s no better example than the deep blue state of Maryland, controlled by a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature, and poised in early 2011 to become the sixth state to sanction gay marriage. The measure passed the Maryland Senate 25 to 21, and moved on to the House of Delegates, traditionally even more liberal on social policy. And there it floundered. A significant factor was the vocal opposition of African-American pastors — that “black church” that Lisa Miller sees as a wellspring of solace, validation and justice narration for the modern left.

My point is not to plunge into the complicated and on-going politics of gay marriage in Maryland (Maryland will likely approve gay marriage, and with support from some African-American pastors, and my support as well) — but more narrowly to highlight the error of marrying “the black church” to any current liberal “justice” agenda.

Third, any marriage of religious doctrine, left or right, to current political disputes should give pause. It is perfectly appropriate for people of faith — or even cynical admirers of the political possibilities of faith — to ask, “what would Jesus do?” in the grip of a personal moral choice. It is not appropriate to ask “how would Jesus vote?” on the stimulus package, bank bail-outs, auto industry bailouts and labor union windfalls, deficit reduction measures, and tax policy.

The historical Jesus didn’t take a single “political” position (in the sense we are discussing) except arguably the brilliant and much-debated answer to Pharisees seeking to trap him on tax obligations: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). And they were amazed and went away (Matthew 22:22).

To be sure, Jesus was a radical Jew — but his radicalism was religious and personal, not political or statist. Indeed, the notion that Jesus was some sort of justice warrior on behalf of the poor and downtrodden — and that government welfare programs are therefore “what Jesus would want” — precisely misunderstands the difference between the religious and the political, and between the personal and the public/governmental. Jesus felt enormous compassion for the poor and the oppressed, and acted personally on that compassion — as, it is fair to say, he would urge all of us to do. But he never advocated a power-structure program or any governmental redistribution initiative — not because he opposed or supported such statist programs, but because they were utterly irrelevant to his religious and personal message.

Do politics to your heart’s content, he might have said, but first do right in your personal life. Jesus had nothing to say about our politics — and much to say about how we treat other actual human beings in our life and whether we thereby honor God.

And thus we come full circle to Black Liberation Theology — its deep resonance in the 1960s and its inaptness as an “answer” for liberals in the 2010s.

When Rosa Parks was ordered to give up her bus seat solely because she was black, that was an immediate and deeply personal offense, a direct and shameful disrespect. African-Americans and their allies very naturally put Jesus on their side against such steady personal mistreatment. Using power arbitrarily to humiliate a human being would send Jesus into orbit — and law and politics conspired at the time to institutionalize precisely that repetitious personal humiliation.

Black Liberation Theology was one (among several) responses to that repetitious personal humiliation — and black theologian Cone’s threat of a “protracted civil war” — in the context I have now described — against that repetitious humiliation was a fair and angry response to human beings horribly misbehaving — directly and personally — toward other human beings. Indeed, Black Liberation Theology at the time was an honest conditional, a noble plea to white America to do the right thing — with “right” cast in sincerely Christian terms — or else. And “or else” simply meant the last resort of a people directly oppressed and personally humiliated several times a day.

The mistake, the disconnect between 1960s Black Liberation Theology and Lisa Miller’s wistful and overreaching resurrection of Black Liberation Theology fifty years later, is precisely captured in Obery Hendricks’ insistence that political conservatives who call themselves Christians but oppose government programs that help the poor are not, in any meaningful way, Christians.

That insistence isn’t tethered to any defensible solidarity with Jesus. Jesus did not make, and would not have made, any pronouncements about “government programs” — much less the religious credentials of those who debate the merits of “government programs.” Government programs have nothing whatever to do with the personal righteousness with which Jesus passionately concerned himself.

“Government programs” operate in the political realm, and their merits are fairly debated in political terms — chief among such terms being the extent and duration of public assistance, whether the assistance includes a work incentive (or disincentive), and whether the assistance encourages the superfluity of fathers and the disintegration of families. Take whichever position you wish, but do not invoke Jesus — from the left or the right.

Our politics are pointed and sullied enough without misappropriating the Gospels and excommunicating Christians of different political orientations.


Who’s Funnier — Democrats or Republicans?

It’s here!  Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington DC!  It’s for those, says the website, “who believe that the only time it’s appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler. Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles.”  Indeed.

Which got me to thinking, since Jon Stewart is frighteningly funny, who’s actually funnier?  Democrats or Republicans?

You might imagine the answer obvious, since Democrats are generally smarter and have wider access to more sophisticated forms of wit than Republicans.

But true students of humorosity (humor as a category of rigorous scientific testing) say the jury is out.  Consider this anecdote:

Joy Behar of The View fame, with evident anger issues, calls Sharron Angle a “bitch.”  Angle sends Behar flowers and a nice note: “Joy, Raised $150,000 online yesterday. Thanks for your help. Sincerely, Sharron Angle.”  Humorosity scientists agree, that’s funny.

Behar shoots back: “I would like to point out that those flowers were picked by illegal immigrants & they’re not voting for you, bitch.”

Citing the need for further investigation, humorosity scientists refuse to comment.

An anecdote, of course, settles no issue.  I happen to think Republicans, or their ilk, are funnier these days — P.J. O’Rourke, Matt Labash, Dennis Miller — but it has not always been so.

A sense of humor in politics is typically a function of electoral optimism.  When you’re winning, you’re more relaxed, and funnier.  When you’re losing, you’re sulky and humorless.  (“Power corrupts, but lack of power corrupts absolutely.” –Adlai Stevenson)

Democrats were winning big in 2008, and were pretty funny.

Compare these lists of bumper stickers for Democrats and Republicans.  I think any earnest and objective assessor of humorosity would have to agree that the Democrats were funnier.  Democrats had bumper stickers like “McPalin: A Bridge to Nowhere” (which nicely built on the Alaskan origin of the infamous “bridge to nowhere”), “If I Owned 7 Houses, I’d Think the Economy Was Great Too!” (which has been removed from most bumpers), and my personal favorite: “Jesus Was a Community Organizer, Pontius Pilate Was a Governor.”

An idiosyncratic digression: would we really prefer Jesus over Pontius Pilate as President of the United States?  I mean really.  Think about this.  Think you’re done thinking about it?  Think some more.  That’s all I’m going to say.

Meanwhile, Republicans sported relatively tepid stickers like “NObama,” and “Yes Mac Can.”

There were some good ones:  “Obama For Change? That’s All You’ll Have Left In Your Pockets,” “Your Wallet: The One Place Democrats Are Willing to Drill,” “McCain ’08: Proven Leadership So We Don’t Have to Hope.”

But as humor, notice how long it took to get to the point.  Democrats could get instantaneously to the point with “John McCain: Continue the Pain,” “McCain is a Fossil Fool,” and “If Sarah Palin Is Qualified, So Am I.”  The best political campaign humor is always succinct — and inevitably so because broadly shared cultural understandings fill in the blanks and permit much more to go unstated.

Notable as well in 2008 was relative meanness.  Oddly, Democrats were meaner.  I say oddly because typically electoral optimism makes one more relaxed, funnier, and more magnanimous.  Yet Democrats were demonstrably meaner.  The assault on Sarah Palin was amazing in its meanness.  Some bumper stickers: “Pregnant Unwed High School Dropouts for Palin,” “Sarah, While You Were Looking at Russia, Maybe You Should Have Been Watching Your Daughter,” “Abstinence-Only Education Really Works, Huh Sarah?”

I have a theory about this.  Americans, like voters in every democracy, have always been mean in electoral politics.  When Benjamin Disraeli called half the British Cabinet “asses” during parliamentary debate, a member rose to demand that he withdraw the statement.  Disraeli responded, “Mr. Speaker, I withdraw. Half the Cabinet are not asses.”

Okay, that’s not technically a testament to the meanness of the electorate — I just love that story, believe it should be taught in schools, and couldn’t fit it in anywhere else.

The relative meanness in 2008 wasn’t Democrats being meaner, just typically mean.  Whereas, the great majority of Americans in 2008 were unwilling to be mean to the first African-American presidential nominee in history.  It was a kind of enforced civility, yes a double standard, but the more admirable because this moment was historic, and very American.

The spike in meanness about Obama now?  An enormous advance for African-Americans.  The great columnist Carl Rowan, who died at the end of the 20th century, wrote “A minority group has ‘arrived’ only when it has the right to produce some fools and scoundrels without the entire group paying for it.”  The 21st century corollary of that wisdom is this: a minority group has arrived when it can produce the leader of the greatest nation on the planet, who is treated with contempt equal to all previous leaders.

But back to funny.  So a Republican farmer in rural Ohio gets targeted by the Ohio Department of Labor for failing to pay proper wages to his help.  The DOL agent assigned to the investigation tells the farmer, “I need a list of your employees and how much you pay them.”

“Well,” says the farmer, “there’s my farm hand who’s been with me for 3 years.  I pay him $400.00 a week plus free room and board.  The cook has been here for 18 months, and I pay her $300.00 per week plus free room and board.”

“Any others?” asks the agent.

“Well… there’s the half-wit.  He works about 18 hours every day and does about 90% of all the work around here.  He makes about $10.00 per week, pays his own room and board, and I buy him a bottle of Bourbon every Saturday night.  And sometimes he sleeps with my wife.”

“That’s the guy I want to talk to, the half-wit,” says the agent.

“That would be me,” replied the farmer.

I just think Republicans are funnier these days.  Maybe just because they can be.

But I’ve always been weary with conspiracy theorists, birthers, truthers, Oliver Stone… So I close with this true story.

A group of conspiracy theorists were traveling to a conspiracy theory convention.  Their bus crashed and they were all killed.  At the gates of heaven, it occurred to them, they could finally find out what really happened.  The leader of the conspiracy theorists approached God and said, “we just want to know, who killed John Kennedy?”

God said, “Lee Harvey Oswald killed John Kennedy, and I have forgiven him in My way.”

The leader of the conspiracy theorists went back to his group, and reported, “guys, it goes much higher than we thought.”

European Anti-Semitism versus Measuring European Anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism in Europe is a given — but the ways of measuring it are not.

The most recent survey of anti-Semitism in Europe by the Anti-Defamation League does not properly assess anti-Semitism.  The magnitude of anti-Semitism in Europe is alarming, according to the survey, and the magnitude of anti-Semitism in Europe is no doubt alarming — but not because the survey accurately measured it.

The survey covered Austria, France, Hungary, Poland, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom.  Respondents were asked whether or not they thought the following four statements were “probably true” or “probably false.”

1) Jews are more loyal to Israel than to this country.

2) Jews have too much power in the business world.

3) Jews have too much power in international financial markets.

4) Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust.

Respondents were also asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement that “Jews are responsible for the death of Christ.”

Finally, respondents were asked if their opinion of Jews was influenced by actions taken by the State of Israel and whether they believed the violence directed against European Jews was a result of anti-Jewish feelings or anti-Israel sentiment.

It is difficult to measure bigotry because bigots will hide their bigotry when surveyed.  The only possible way to account for bigots hiding bigotry is to ask indirect questions that assess less controversial attitudes.  The survey did not do this.  For example, the survey could ask “are you acquainted with any Jews?”  And then, if no, “would you wish to be?”  If yes they are acquainted with Jews, then the survey would assess attitudes toward these people.

The first question — “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to this country” — may or may not assess anti-Semitism.  A respondent answering “yes” may simply believe that Jews consider Israel the homeland for Jews, that it is a besieged homeland, and that preservation of that homeland is more important than any self-preservation issue confronting “this country.”  That respondent may or may not be anti-Semitic.  Moreover, a respondent answering “no” may well believe Jews are more loyal to “this country,” but still be anti-Semitic.

The second and third questions, concerning Jewish power in business and finance, test very tired stereotypes.  Indeed, one of the silliest notions about Jews is their disproportionate financial power.  An anti-Semitic respondent could easily answer “no,” simply because the notions are silly.  (The fact that over half the respondents in Hungary, Poland, and Spain nevertheless answered “yes” is pretty much all you need to know about European anti-Semitism.)

The fourth question — Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust — has little to do with anti-Semitism.  About the Holocaust, some Jews speak and some Jews are silent.  The person answering this question may live next to the Jew who is silent or who speaks.  There is no reliable measure of anti-Semitism from speaking, or not speaking, about the Holocaust.

The issue is Holocaust denial.  The survey should have nothing to do with “talking” about the Holocaust, and everything to do questioning the Holocaust.  “Jewish claims about the Holocaust are probably overstated,” for example.  Test that.  The very real modern indicia of anti-Semitism is Holocaust denial.

The fifth question — “Jews are responsible for the death of Christ” — is a frankly stupid question.  It surely touches upon a historical basis for anti-Semitism, but ineptly.

1. It begs the question, for some, whether there ever was a “Christ” (as opposed to a historical Jesus, or Yeshua bar-Josef).  Some will say “No,” simply because they object to the term “Christ,” even though they might be anti-Semitic for other reasons.

2. Strictly speaking, according to the Biblical narrative, certain Jews were responsible for persuading Pontius Pilate to order the death of Jesus.  Thus, some who are not anti-Semitic in any respect and may be ardent supporters of Israel may answer “Yes” to this question based upon fidelity to their scriptural text.

3. For many Christians, of course, “Christ” did not die, or stay dead.  Some may therefore answer “No” simply because they object to the notion that “Christ” (as opposed to Jesus) ever died.  They may or may not be anti-Semitic.

In probing anti-Semitism, the question is not whether Jews were responsible for the death of Christ, but whether “Jews are appropriately to blame for being Christ-killers.”  This framing tests modern attitudes about collective guilt for deicide.  It wouldn’t do to ask whether Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus, because according to the dominant Christian narrative, yes, certain Jews were.  It is not anti-Semitic to say that certain Jews persuaded Pontius Pilate to order the crucifixion of Jesus (and that certain Jews objected, that certain Jews were horrified, that certain Jews were disciples and many others loyal to Jesus, etc.).

The sixth and final question concerns Israel and Jews — and gives any bigot an obvious out to blame hostility toward Jews on Israel.  This query gets the real question precisely backwards.  Hostility toward Israel is sometimes anti-Semitic.  It might be useful to probe that question, but it is not useful to ask whether violence against Jews has more to do with Jews or Israel.

We can be confident, unfortunately, that anti-Semitism in Europe is robust.  We cannot be confident that it has been measured well.