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What would Jesus pack?

An arms manufacturer has been coding references to New Testament verses on the sights of the rifles it supplies to the Pentagon for use in Iraq and Afghanistan.  One of the coded passages from John is:

I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.

The discovery has provoked the usual criticism that such references will be offensive to Muslims and will fuel the belief that the U.S. is carrying out a religious crusade, a reaction that in the present instance strikes me as not wholly irrational, if not actually true.  But what I find most striking in this episode is the notion that Jesus’ message should be seen as inspiration for, or compatible with, blasting someone away with a high-tech rifle.  This notion is almost as quixotic as the idea that the exponent of the Sermon on the Mount, who asked:

And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin

is invoked to justify the capitalist acquisition of wealth.  People’s capacity to read into the Bible what they want to find is as creative as their capacity to read into God what comforts them.  After another non-Islamic-terrorist (and thus largely ignored) mass killing in Virginia last week, a neighbor of the victims told the New York Times:

“We’re not going out in the dark not knowing what’s out there. But we trust in the Lord to take care of us.”

Now why would the Lord take care of the neighbors, but not the eight victims, I wonder?


Human compassion has produced the usual generous outpouring of aid to devastated Haiti.  Meanwhile, Obama has shown himself in a statement today to be a standard American politician, having included among the admirable qualities of the Haitians the fact that their faith has been unwavering.  Why is holding on to religious faith in the face of contradictory evidence a virtue?  In any other field—climatology, say–maintaining a belief despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary would be seen as a lamentable failure of rationality.  If a human being had foreknowledge of, and the capacity to prevent, a coming disaster like the Haitian earthquake and yet did nothing, he would be viewed as a monster.  Pat Robertson’s interpretation of the Haitian earthquake as divine punishment for voodoo and for an alleged  “pact with the devil” has been universally mocked, but it at least represents an effort to explain why God, who had both knowledge of the earthquake and the capacity to prevent it, nevertheless chose not to act in this particular instance, though he  acts to save other lives all the time, such as when keeping America safe since 9/11 or answering a family’s prayers for a cancer victim.  Interpreting the source of divine displeasure that gave rise to natural disasters was a regular function of preachers before secularism cut religion in the West down to size (on May 26, 1703, for example, during the most destructive storm in British history, the vicar of Cheshunt preached a sermon entitled: “The Necessity of Repentance Asserted: In order to Avert those Judgements which  the Present War, and Strange Unseasonableness of the Weather at Present, Seem to Threaten this Nation with.”).  Obviously, anyone who interprets God’s will is going to fill it in with his own biases (if seeing retribution for breaking the first two commandments is a bias).  But I’d rather have consistency in the inclination to ascribe meaning to events in God’s universe than a retreat into obscurantism–“the human mind cannot fathom God’s reasons”–when the candidates for a meaning are unacceptable.  The mind cannot supply any possible reason for God’s inaction here that doesn’t either grotesquely violate one’s sense of fairness or imply fault on the side of the sufferers, yet a reason there must be, according to our demand for a God who rules the world not by caprice but according to good cause.   And however politically incorrect Robertson’s interpretation of the consequences of idolatry currently is, that interpretation has an impeccable pedigree in the Bible and has never been officially repudiated.  Contrary to the assertions of believers, it is easier to understand how unmerited suffering can arise in an undirected universe than in a directed one and requires less torturing of reason and perverse implication of fault.  And though we may live in a universe of random injustice, the human capacity to conquer such injustice grows by the day, thanks to the tireless application of the scientific method to nature. 

Many are undoubtedly now praying to God to save the earthquake victims, an act of empathy arising out of human love that thousands of other humans, believers and unbelievers alike, are acting on.

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A Christmas joke

A leader in the New York State Republican Party (admittedly not a powerful domain) recently concluded a dinner presentation with the following joke:  “To those of the Christian faith, Merry Christmas!  To those of the Jewish faith, Happy Hanukkah!  And to those of no faith, good luck!”

LOL.  Let us be grateful for this theological kissy-wissy between Christians and Jews, a trait that is particularly pronounced among conservative defenders of religiosity, but that characterizes virtually all of Western life today.  “Jesus the Son of God?  No?  Hey!  No prob.  Whatever.”   This easy amicability would have been unthinkable when Religion ruled the West. 

As for the fate of non-believers, possessing faith does not seem to provide much protection against disaster during earthly life.  God allows the daily slaughter of the innocents to claim believers with as much indiscriminate abandon as non-believers.  Church vans appear to be particularly prone to fatal accidents, I have noticed; avalanches, like earthquakes, floods, fire, and crippling genetic abnormalities, show no solicitude for victims of faith.  As for the afterlife that believers hold so dear, if God would consign to eternal damnation a moral, generous, and honest human being simply because he has not bent his knee to God in worship and supplication, you’ve got to wonder about the Divine One’s fragile sense of self-worth and the impartial justice with which He allegedly governs his creation. 

Still, on this Christmas eve, we can all celebrate the marvelous world, so filled with uncountable comforts and beauty (including Christmas traditions and all its music), that men have built for themselves, whether through their own innate hunger for knowledge or with divine assistance.  Merry Christmas!




Medical miracles

The Lutheran Hour takes over New York’s sole remaining classical music station for part of Sunday mornings.   Its announcer, whose stylized speech inflections recall a more theatrical era of radio or a pitch for hair elixir, was today as usual promoting the benefits of Christian belief: You’re never lonely on Christmas; you have an antidote to death; you have someone who loves you.  The fact that these attributes of God are exactly what a frightened, vulnerable human being would like to be true does not mean that they are false.  Just because we witness again and again man’s overpowering desire for a special friend or fixer who can get him out of tight spots, to whom he can address urgent calls for help when he is in danger, who keeps a special ear out just for him, in recognition of his unique and precious worth, who gives him an exemption from mortality . . . just because all these things are the case does not mean that there is not a God who conforms exactly to our emotional needs.  But it is an interesting coincidence, all the same; it is perhaps “overdetermined,” as they say in the academy.  (more…)

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An advantage of polytheism

The Pope announced during his Angelus broadcast last Sunday that he was “imploring God to relieve the pain” of the survivors of  a recent flood in Sicily and of the recent earthquake in Indonesia, according to RAI International.  Such an expression of sympathy after a tragedy by appealing to divine solace is a vital and noble function of religion. 

But the paradox of religious belief, it seems to me, is that the need to believe in a loving, sheltering  God is strongest at precisely the moment when such a belief is most counterfactual: after a particularly devastating tragedy that a loving, sheltering God could have averted.  This paradox does not much trouble believers: after a collective disaster, they troop off to church to worship and request assistance from the God who has allowed the devastation to occur. (more…)



Christian radio and moral decisions

I have been listening with considerable enjoyment to Christian radio, mostly KBRT, which is preset in the car I have been driving in Los Angeles.  Despite having wasted my college education on deconstructionist literary theory, I nevertheless still believe in the value of disciplined close reading and am touched by the devotion to the words of the Bible that many radio preachers evince, even if that devotion rests on a false apprehension regarding the text’s source.  I like the generally cheerful attitude towards self-improvement and the call to self-evaluation.  To be sure, there’s plenty of whacky and contradictory supernaturalism as well.  Todd White, who purports to cure even “High Priestesses of Satan” of such illnesses as sciatica with Jesus’ power, explained why Holocaust survivors should not have lost their faith in God: “God is not in control,” he said, arriving at a perfectly logical explanation for the daily slaughter of the innocents .   The next day, Wiley Drake, the pastor of the First Southern Baptist Church in Garden Grove, Ca., asserted more conventionally:  “God’s in control of everything.”  How we’re supposed to referee such conflicting claims is left unresolved.  (Wiley Drake has been in the news recently for his unapologetic embrace of “imprecatory prayer” to call for “President Barack Hussein Obama’s” death.  Drake argues unimpeachably that if you’re going to view the Bible as the word of God, you can’t edit out, as “some panty-waist, user-friendly preachers” do, the parts that no longer conform to our moral sensibilities, including the two dozen or so Psalms that revel in God’s willingness to mercilessly slaughter Israel’s enemies.   KBRT host Rick Buhler agreed with Wiley that reciting Biblical death wishes had nothing to do with voodoo and cheerfully reminded him: “Please let me know if I end up on your imprecatory list.  Bless you, Wiley.”)

 All this is illuminating and entertaining.  But however much I applaud the regular attention to self-inspection, nothing I have heard on Christian radio changes my view that moral reasoning is independent of, and a condition precedent to, religious injunction.    (And, a fortiori, religiously-inspired moral preaching says nothing about whether God actually exists.)  

 The really hard moral challenges are not much assisted by Biblical commands, it seems to me.  The Ten Commandments are a set of no-brainers—at least those not concerned with ensuring prostration before God.  No society would regard murder as legitimate behavior (though every society sanctions killing other human beings under various circumstances which the Bible does not spell out).  But how do you decide, say, where your responsibility towards another person begins and ends and how best to fulfill it?  If a friend, family member, or soul mate persists in engaging in what you believe to be self-destructive behavior, for example, how unrelentingly should you push for change, and when do you back off and say: “It’s your choice, I will desist trying to change you.”  Embracing an ethic of love doesn’t answer the question, which requires a nuanced exploration of our actual power over other human beings and our duty towards others, as well as a context-specific evaluation of our relationship to the person we hope to persuade and his willingness to be nudged or harangued.  Such dilemmas have only provisional answers, however much we might yearn for a stable answer from outside of ourselves.  Injunctions to make no idols and “have no other God besides me” are no help at all.

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The conundrum of prayer

Last Saturday, the New York City Police Department  experienced the worst misfortune that can befall a police department: one officer mistakenly and fatally shooting another.  The loss of Officer Omar Edwards to friendly fire is an unbearable tragedy, for which the entire city grieves.  (Despicably, New York’s race hustlers, including the New York Times, are trying to turn the incident into a racial one, as I describe here.)  In the wake of Edwards’s shooting, New York Daily News columnist Michael Daly discussed another friendly fire incident in  2006, in which an off-duty NYPD officer with a gun was also shot by his fellow officers:

On learning that [Officer Eric] Hernandez had been shot, the entire [precinct] football team assembled at St. Barnabas Hospital. They kept a vigil day after day, but all their prayers could not save him.

Daly is using a commonplace expression, of course, but one that in its very frequency carries ponderable significance. Isn’t it the least bit puzzling to believers why some prayers get answered and others don’t?   Theology and metaphysics are serious disciplines, we are told, worthy of deep study.  Surely the divines can explain what distinguishes the moments when prayers do save someone from those when they don’t.   Is it the targets of prayers that are distinguishable, or the people doing the praying?  Perhaps someone could keep tabs and analyse the results, in the spirit of scientific inquiry.  Or does God just have priorities wildly different from ours?  But who can possibly imagine a reason why God wouldn’t respond to prayers to save an officer’s life, but would respond to the petitions that we are regularly told have produced a divine affirmative—to get someone out of debt, say, or to cure someone of illness? 

I take it that believers do not ascribe such inconsistent results to capriciousness on God’s part, but rather to their own limited capacities to understand God’s ways:  “Thy Will be done.”  But why continue directing any psychic energy to a being so lacking in sympathetic correspondence to human needs and values.  It will not do to say: “God does respond to our prayers, but in ways that we cannot fathom.”  Saving a child from cancer and letting a child die from cancer cannot both be a sympathetic response to prayer; if we had wanted a stricken child to die in order to secure an earlier entry to heaven, we would have said so.  And if premature death from cancer is such a boon, why doesn’t a loving God provide it to one and all?

It is humans who work with passion and commitment every day to try to save their fellows (and a range of other creatures)  from suffering and sorrow.  Emergency room medicine is constantly evolving to try to ensure that gun shot victims and people crushed by cars survive.  Doctors and hospital staff work frantically throughout the night to try to revive a failing heart or a shattered brain.  They do so out of love and compassion, while God, who could restart an exhausted heart in an instant, demurs.  The only source of love on earth is human empathy.  Transferring our own admirable traits onto a constructed deity just obscures the real human condition: we are all we have, but that is saying a lot.




Please explain

Will Bill O’Reilly or anyone else who saw the hand of God in the safe landing of US Airways Flight 1549 this January please explain why God chose not to save Continental Connection Flight 3407, which plunged into a house outside of Buffalo last night, killing all 49 people on board and a resident on the ground?

Among the explanations which will not be accepted: “humans cannot possibly fathom God’s mysterious ways.”  Oh yes they can, apparently—when something good happens.  Having found proof of God’s love in the safe conclusion of US Airways Flight 1549, believers cannot now turn around and claim that God’s ways are veiled just because something disastrous happens.  If it’s legitimate to infer beneficence from a happy outcome, it is equally plausible to infer malice or at least indifference from a negative outcome.  You can’t pick and choose the actions in which you find God’s will transparent.



Obama as God

Conservatives, particularly religious conservatives, undoubtedly guffawed at this New York Times headline: “Poll Finds Faith in Obama, Mixed With Patience.” Faith belongs to God, they probably said, not to Man, and certainly not to a man as untested, lightweight, and liberal as Obama. 

Scorn for the media’s Obama worship is understandable; the press has abandoned any pretense of neutral reporting in favor of all-out wallow.  But I doubt whether conservatives would object to similar treatment, however unthinkable, of a Republican nominee; they themselves have turned Reagan into a patron saint, to be invoked for protection and guidance at every setback. 

Whether or not Obama deserves the people’s faith—I myself am moderately heartened by his bipartisan overtures– I don’t see why it is more appropriate to put one’s faith in the unseen and unknown rather than in human capacities. (more…)

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God’s Problem

Several friends have recommended Martin Gardner’s review of Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem in the New Criterion, the brilliant  journal of principled culture criticism.  Gardner, a math and science writer, lays out a Leibnizian explanation for life-destroying natural disasters: Any human-supportive universe which God created must obey physical laws in order to continue functioning; those laws cannot be suspended, even to prevent mass slaughter by earthquake or individual loss by car accident.  “If God were obliged to prevent all accidents that kill or injure, he would have to be constantly poking his fingers into millions of events around the globe. History would turn into a chaos of endless miracles,” writes Gardner. 
Perhaps this argument is a compelling answer to Ehrman’s argument for the irreconcilability of a benevolent God and human suffering (I haven’t read Ehrman’s book), but it strikes me almost irrelevant to actual religious practice and belief.  The vast majority of Christians, guided by their priests and pastors, assume a loving God who intervenes regularly in human affairs.  Christians pray to God to cure them from cancer or protect them from a plane crash.  (Intermediaries are also useful: A soon-to-be closed Catholic school in Brooklyn is called Our Lady of Perpetual Help, presumably because She does provide perpetual help, but not in this case.)  A politician and Baptist minister in Kentucky is promoting a law requiring the state’s office of homeland security to display a plaque that reads: “The safety and security of the Commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God.”  Apparently God is not just a co-founder of the United States but also a federalist, honoring state boundaries in his on again, off again solicitude for the country. 

Gardner argues that were God to start preventing some deadly accidents, he would have to prevent all such accidents, resulting in chaos.  The reality is far worse than that.   Since believers give credit to God for answering their prayers when they are saved from catastrophe or illness, they have to explain why he answered their prayers and not those other people’s prayers, why he saved these children from a tsunami and not those other children.  Any believer who today thanks God for making sure that his coronary bypass operation was successful has to explain why God allowed at least 37 peasants to be buried in a Guatemalan landslide on Sunday.  Such an explanation requires either extraordinary narcissism on the believer’s part or positing capricious injustice on the part of God. 

While I am more sympathetic to Gardner’s semi-stripped-down theism than to the full-blown Christian account of a loving, personal, prayer-answering God, the enterprise of trying to logically determine God’s intentions and actions by the use of reason strikes me as questionable, whatever its august pedigree.  The gulf that surely yawns between a being that is self-created and that created all of reality (even if such causal concepts apply to God) and our feeble mentation precludes any confidence that what we deem as logically necessary and thus binding on God actually does bind him or has the slightest relevance to him.   And why even posit as starting concepts goodness and justice?  Those are human desires and values.  They may be wholly irrelevant to something as massive and impenetrable as God.   Gardner seems to embrace a logical argument for the afterlife (proposition three below), since it is more consistent with a good, omnipotent God than several alternative propositions:

   1. God is unable to provide an afterlife, in which case his power seems unduly limited.
   2. God can provide an afterlife but chooses not to, in which case his goodness is tarnished.
   3. God is both able and willing to provide an afterlife.

If we’re going this far and attributing both will and ability to God, I see no reason why Gardner should not specify whether we get free will and justice in that afterlife, which he abjures doing.


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