Tag Archives: God’s Plan

Of Morality and Horology

Kylan Arianna Wenzel

Kylan Arianna Wenzel, Transgender Miss California Competitor

One of my daughter’s good friends recently came out as … well, I’m not sure what the word is. S/he was born male but feels like a lesbian. That seems a tad more complicated than transgender, but there you have it.

If one felt moved to make a moral pronouncement about that situation, what would one say?

For the evangelicals with whom I used to consort, the answer would be simple.

Or would it?

My thesis in this post is that traditional, sacred-text-based religions make morality more complicated than it really is, and therefore less clear.

Audemars Piguet Classique Grand Complication Pocket Watch

Audemars Piguet Classique Grand Complication Pocket Watch

I will set the stage with a digression to another field where complications are the order of the day: horology. The highest accomplishment in making a timepiece is to introduce as many complications as possible. Complication in horology is a term of art meaning a feature beyond displaying hours, minutes and seconds.

Patek Philippe Calibre 89

Patek Philippe Calibre 89 – Obverse

Patek Philippe claims to have made the three most complicated watches ever. The most complicated of them all is the Calibre 89, a pocket watch weighing in at over 1 kilogram and sporting 33 complications ranging from the date of Easter to the times of sunrise and sunset. It is valued at about $6 million.

In second place is the Super-complication custom-built for banker Henry Graves in 1933. It has 24 complications, including one that displays the current position of the stars over Graves’ New York home. It fetched $11 million at auction in 1999.

Henry-Graves Supercomplication - Obverse

Henry-Graves Supercomplication – Obverse and Interior

Henry Graves Supercomplication - Reverse

Henry Graves Supercomplication – Reverse

Greubel Forsey Double Tourbillon

Greubel Forsey Double Tourbillon

These ultra-luxe watches are not just gadget boxes. Their mechanical movements (quartz is for plebeians) are superbly crafted for accuracy. One complication, called a tourbillon, is designed to counter the bias that the force of gravity exerts on the movement, by encasing key components in an assembly that continually rotates, evening out gravitational effects. Of course, horologists did not stop there; there are double-axis tourbillons, triple-axis tourbillons and even flying tourbillons.

All this human genius is just that: human. The natural phenomenon on which these vastly complicated machines report could not be simpler. It is the one-way arrow of time, which lengthens at a constant rate.

The stupendous achievements of horologists remind me of certain religious texts. To come up with an accurate time, one must construct a movement of hundreds of parts: the balance spring to get things started; precisely crafted gears spinning in every direction; escapements to change one form of energy into another; tourbillons to counteract gravitational bias; and who-know-what else. Likewise, religious texts invariably contain many passages on a given topic, some suggesting one conclusion and others “balancing” that by pointing to another. That’s why people can spend hundreds of years arguing about what The Book really says.

There’s a lot that can go wrong for the horologist, and a lot that can go wrong for the exegete.

The Boston Marathon Bombings on April 15 were only the latest example of the peril of entrusting complicated scripture — with some passages spinning clockwise toward peace and others spinning counter-clockwise towards killing infidels — to the brains of people who, shall we say, take far less care making decisions about other people’s lives than Patek Philippe does making watches.

It seems to me that the underlying ideals are a lot less complicated than the Koran or the Bible make them out to be, just as the arrow of time is less complicated than a Calibre 89.

Even Jesus thought it was a good idea to simplify, saying,

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

(Admittedly, Jesus also said that not a single letter of the Old Testament Law was to be set aside, so he was not completely a simplificationist.)

The Dalai Lama said,

We can reject everything else: religion, ideology, all received wisdom. But we cannot escape the necessity of love and compassion…. This, then, is my true religion, my simple faith. In this sense, there is no need for temple or church, for mosque or synagogue, no need for complicated philosophy, doctrine or dogma. Our own heart, our own mind, is the temple. The doctrine is compassion. 

So what shall we say about my daughter’s friend? The Bible says lesbian desires are “shameful.” Does it still count as lesbian desire if you’re biologically a man? No? Then what if you’re biologically a man but have had a sex-change operation? And does the righteous course of action depend on whether the desires are inborn? Does it matter that God makes each of the way we are? Or is The Fall, not God, to blame for our perverse tendencies? But how can a just God hold us to account for Adam and Eve’s actions? Can you change sexual orientation through prayer? What if the prayer does not work?

All those complications should make us ask, “Are we making something that is as simple as time, as complicated as a watch?”

The Dalia Lama continued,

Love for others and respect for their rights and dignity, no matter who or what they are: ultimately these are all we need.

What If Everyone Will Go to Heaven?

At the philosophy gathering I attended on Friday, one person told of a Quaker pastor she knows who preaches that everyone will go to heaven. We had an interesting discussion around the question, If that were true, would we have any reason to be good?

My opinion is that we would.

To see why, let’s start by considering this life only. Pretend there is no heaven at all.

I’ve already written about why someone who doesn’t believe in any afterlife at all could care about right and wrong and want to do right. The post was Why Care About Right and Wrong? and I can summarize it in one sentence: This life generally goes better if we do the right thing.

It’s one of the wondrous byproducts of my favorite twin concepts, evolution and emergence. Our genes, in their ever-selfish quest for replication, long ago stumbled upon the strategy of motivating their hosts (that’s us) to cooperate with other hosts that have the same genes (that’s not only our children but to some extent everyone we know). Over time, the selection pressures of evolution have locked us into this niche of intelligence and cooperation. Thus emerges evolution’s counter-intuitive result: altruism. We aren’t physically dangerous enough to survive any other way. If we were rattlesnakes, things would be different but we happen to have evolved into a niche of cooperation.

Success in this niche is most certain for those who consistently cooperate, for that makes other people trust you, which redounds to your benefit when you need it most.

Being trustworthy in treating others as you would want them to treat you is the foundation for all morality and ethics. So there you have it. Whether there’s a heaven or not, and whether it’s for everyone or not, the evolutionary pressures of this life have molded most of us into beings who want to be good (most of the time, anyway).

And then there’s the matter of living with ourselves. Most of us look in the mirror at least once a day and we want to like what we see. I wrote about this in Life as Art.

If none of this convinces you, then I ask you to peer into your own soul. Is it really true that you do good only because you want to be rewarded in heaven or avoid God’s punishment? Is it really true that you don’t care about the Good for its own sake? I believe better of you. I hope you believe better of yourself.

I hope I’ve succeeded in making the case that we have reason to be good if there is no heaven. What about if there is heaven in everyone’s future?

Let’s do a thought-experiment. Suppose that instead of treading this vale of tears for threescore and ten and then passing on to our eternal rest, it worked in the opposite order. Suppose we were living in heaven since eternity past and were birthed into this life as our final stage before we fizzle into nothingness. Wouldn’t every argument I made above still apply?

So what difference does it make if heaven is in the future or the past? It is still the same totality of life, is it not? Whatever diabolical calculation our putative villain could make would turn out the same. A million plus one is the same as one plus a million. If the bad man wants to mess up the “one” part of the sum, then his total Machiavellian calculation will turn out the same either way.

This has been fun to think about, but I admit it’s irrelevant. If one day I arrive in heaven (which I don’t expect) and find that Adolph Hitler himself got there first, I will not be upset. Would you? Really?

Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 6: The God of the Bible

The image of God I received during my 40 years in evangelical churches was overwhelmingly positive. The central message was, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus was our Good Shepherd, faithfully leading and caring for his flock. He sent the Holy Spirit to comfort and teach us.

I knew of darker passages in the Bible, but those were not emphasized. I was confident that God was good, so there must be reasonable explanations for the God-ordered genocides, enslavements, and all-around harshness that characterize some stretches of the Bible.

Liberal Christians can chalk up these passages to a not-yet-developed understanding of the divine. Evangelicals like I was don’t have that luxury. We believed that the Bible is God’s Infallible Word, and does not change. So, if God ordered genocide, then the pagan tribe on the receiving end must have deserved it. Biblical slavery? It was more like indentured servitude. God’s punishments were harsh? That’s because he is so holy.

After the upheavals described in Parts 123 and 4 of this series, those explanations did not rest as easily as they once had. I had learned that godly, well-meaning teachers could be gravely mistaken, or even lie.

Once I began to ask questions with a more open frame of mind, the flaws in the old answers were obvious. Also, I started to notice just how many troubling passages there were. I do not wish to catalog them all here. I won’t even refer you to any of the many Websites that list Bible atrocities. You can find them yourself if and when you’re ready. All I want to do is briefly mention the few passages that hit me particularly hard, and how my take on them changed.

Job

I think the first passage where I said, “Hey, wait a minute!” was the entire Book of Job. Through misfortunes ranging from boils on his skin to the deaths of all his children, righteous Job refuses to “curse God and die” as his wife urges him to do. “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away,” the faithful man says.

In my evangelical circles, discussion of this book usually centered on why God allows the innocent to suffer. The somewhat unsatisfying answer is given by God’s extended discourse at the end of the book. After poetically saying, “You’re only human and I’m God. What do you know?” several dozen times, it ends with, “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!”

OK, but that that doesn’t really answer my question. Why did this innocent man suffer?

Then I noticed that Job’s whole tale of woe got started when God made an entirely gratuitous bet with Satan. God bragged to Satan that Job would be faithful no matter what, and then invited Satan to take everything from Job except his life. Satan hadn’t even been bothering Job until God dared him to afflict him in every way imaginable!

Particularly appalling is that Satan killed Job’s children with God’s permission. We’re supposed to be happy at the end of the book when Job gets replacement children, but, speaking as the father of six, I feel qualified to say that hardly counts.

Why would a just God — to say nothing of a loving one — invite these calamities on a man whom the very first verse of the book calls “blameless“? And do so just for sport! Sport with the devil, no less! And then expect Job to love him without question!?

This article really hit home for me: The God of Abuse. If you only have time to read the rest of this post or that article, please go read the article.

Noah

The story of Noah brings to mind images from Sunday School: happy pairs of animals boarding the Ark, or maybe the rainbow God created after the Flood.

Does anyone care that this was also the story where God exterminated all but 8 members of the human race? Allegedly they deserved it, but did they really? How about the six-year-olds who died in frantic terror as the flood-waters swept them away from their familes? Were they so different from the first-graders who died this week in the Newtown school massacre? Or how about the babies at their mothers’ breast? Were they more evil than your baby? For more on the righteousness of God’s judgment on Israel’s neighbors, see my post, Was Slavery God’s Righteous Judgment?

And let’s not appeal to a happy ending in heaven. The Bible doesn’t — not for these wicked people.

Jephthah

Jephthah is a lesser-known hero of the faith, but his story has even more pathos. He promised God that if God would grant him victory in battle, then on his return he would sacrifice as a burnt offering whatever first came out of his house. He was probably figuring it would be the family goat, but his young daughter — his only child — was the first to run out and greet her daddy.

Jephthah allowed his daughter a month to mourn the fact that she would never marry, but then fulfilled his vow, offering her as a burnt, human sacrifice to God.

Sad, right? Too bad he made such a rash vow, right? But, you know, you gotta fulfill your vows to the Lord. Right?

Wait a minute! God could have stopped him! He had done it before, when he tested Abraham by telling him to sacrifice Isaac, then staying his hand just as he was about to slit his son’t throat. (Another nice story, by the way.) Why did God do nothing while Jephthah sacrificed his innocent daughter to him? For that matter, why didn’t God prompt the goat to come through the doorway ahead of Jephthah’s daughter? He had marshaled thousands of animals onto the ark. Was it too much to ask for one goat to come through a doorway? Was there no limit to the dispassionate cruelty of this God?

This YouTube video made quite an impression on me. Like all good satire, it goes a little overboard, but not much.

Slavery

It is a common but false idea, spread by lazy apologists who have not done their homework, that the Bible does not condone slavery. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, God directly commands Israel to raid distant cities and capture slaves. He even gives specific permission and regulations for sex-slavery.

I have written at length about biblical slavery on this blog and solicited responses from professional apologists and pastors. Although in some cases they promised to reply, none ever did respond for the record. The scandal is simply denied, excused or ignored. Here are links to my posts. As a set, it’s a lot of reading but they will give you an in-depth look at the lameness of the evangelical apologetics I encountered in all the issues I’m only touching on here.

The Handicapped

Compared to the atrocities above, the passage I’m about to cite is minor. However, it was very personal and happens to have been the last straw for me.

In Leviticus 21:16-23, God prohibits people with various physical injuries and deformities from approaching his altar. Huchbacks, dwarfs, the lame, and other people with “defects” would “desecrate” it, he says.

When I read that passage, I thought of two of my children. One of my sons was in the Marines. If his foot had gotten blown off by an IED during service to his country, he would have been a hero to any decent American, but a second-class citizen at God’s Temple.  One of my daughters has a genetic condition that would have made God consider her presence a “desecration.” I’m sorry, but if there’s anyone whom God should welcome at his altar, it’s these two wonderful young people.

I asked some Bible-believing Christians about the passage and they had the predictable excuses but by this time the excuses rang hollow.

Conclusion

Although I had always thought of God as good, the Bible also showed him to be a monster. I saw three ways to resolve the contradiction:

  1. Evil is actually good when God does it.
  2. The God of the Bible exists, but the Bible represents him imperfectly.
  3. The God of the Bible was created in the image of man — specifically, in the image of a superstitious, tribal people who were trying to do right, but had significant moral blind spots.

#1 was a non-starter.

After all I had been through over the previous four years, #2 was too close to more-of-the-same. I was not going to believe anything without evidence, and I didn’t see enough evidence for anything close to the God of the Bible.

#3 seemed by far the most likely. In fact, I felt as if I had no choice to admit it was true.

I was done with evangelical Christianity.

Next time: How it felt to leave my faith.

Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 1: The Wake-Up Call

A few months ago, I told the story of my becoming a Christian. Today, I’ll begin the story of my departure.

If you know any home-schooling, church-going, large families who earnestly seek God in all they do, you have a good picture of my family in my faith-filled days. Ironically, the chain of events that culminated in my loss of faith began because I took my duties as a Christian father seriously.

It happened when my kids started to progress out of our home-school, and eventually out of the private, Christian high school most of them attended. It was time to think about college. My wife and I wanted to give good advice about colleges, and the question came up: should we endorse only creationist colleges, or a broader array of choices?

In our home-school, we taught that God created man; he did not evolve him. I had some questions about creationism, but my allegiance was still with it. I cheered when creationists scored points and pooh-poohed the arguments of evolutionists.

I realized that not all of my children would take readily to the idea of a creationist, and therefore hyper-conservative, school. If I were going to take a strong stand in favor of creationist institutions, I knew I had to resolve once and for all my lingering questions on the subject. It was my duty as a father. (You might well observe that it had always been my duty, and it should not have taken me so long. As you’ll see in my story, sometimes we need a wake-up call.) I decided to do some serious research.

It’s not like I was totally uninformed. I had been reading creationist books and literature for 20 years. We had subscribed to the monthly publication of the Institute for Creation Research (now available online), and I had devoured each issue.

I had also read a few books by the likes of Carl Sagan, but had been able to chalk up their conclusions to their atheistic assumptions. I had never read a scientific, comprehensive case for evolution by a non-Christian.

And why should I have? Evolutionists were generally non-believers, so they were biased against the truth. Creationists were Christians, so not only could I trust them to present their own case accurately, but they would tell me the real truth about evolution. Right?

Maybe, but with the serious question of college choices in front of me, I decided I should stop and listen to both sides. I browsed the shelves at Barnes & Noble and found a book that seemed germane: Scientists Confront CreationismThe book consisted of essays from scientists in various fields, each explaining how the evidence in his own discipline supported evolution and/or refuted young-earth creationism. 

After decades of creationist input; after countless denunciations of evolution from conservative, Christian speakers; after knitting myself into a culture that was anti-evolution; after most of my close friends were creationists; and most of all after investing my entire adult life building a creationist family — with every motivation not to be convinced of evolution — that one book was all it took to convince me that evolution, including the evolution of humans from non-humans, was a reality.The interlocking, independent lines of evidence were that persuasive.  It was not the conclusion I wanted, but it was inescapable. Either God was deceiving/testing us by planting mountains of evidence that were contrary to what had actually happened (that seemed unlikely), or evolution was a fact.

The truth of evolution was the least of my problems. Plenty of people manage to be both evangelical and evolutionist. Much more serious was the realization that the people I had trusted the most — the conservative, Christian leaders at the top of the young-earth creationist movement — had been lying to me. These men are not stupid, and they are well-read. Even now, about six years later, I cannot make up my mind as to whether they know they are lying, or whether they are just so committed to one point of view that they are beyond the reach of evidence. Either way, I had learned that I could not trust them.

I felt enormously betrayed. I had spent countless hours with my children in my lap, reading creationist books to them, and now I found out that the authors were more concerned with pushing an agenda than with honestly evaluating evidence.

Even more acute than my disappointment with the conservative Christian elite was my disappointment with myself. The evidence for evolution had been there the whole time, but I had chosen not to seek it out.

It was a real wake-up call.

I had managed to maintain an uneasy sleep through many of the questions that bother a lot of believers — why does God allow so much suffering; why doesn’t God grant seemingly worthy prayers; how do we know the Bible is inspired — but I could not sleep through this betrayal of my trust.

Long-dormant questions began to reassert themselves. In most cases, the answers I had been going on were based on the word of evangelical authorities and that was no longer good enough. I had learned that they could be just as untruthful as anyone else. I also realized that I was prone to believe the things I wanted to believe and ignore contrary evidence.

I resolved to do better.

Over a span of four years, I sought answers to my questions. I’ll tell you what they were, and what I discovered, in the next post.

Umbrella of Protection?

At first he merely offered a hand to help us in or out of the van, and laid his other hand on our backs as we entered or exited. Then he would hold open a door and touch each of our backs as we walked through; this seemed fine the first time, but I wasn’t sure why it was necessary to touch both of our backs with full open hand every single time we walked through a door of any kind. If there was bench seating, his thigh was closely pressed against mine or the other girl’s. He would take and hold my or her hand as we walked to and from buildings. Without asking or announcing, he stroked my hair. If he was sitting opposite me in the van I would often look up to find him gazing at me, and then he would nudge my foot with his. I would smile nervously, pull my foot back, and look back down at my papers. If he was seated next to me in the van he would rest his hand on my forearm or reach over to hold my hand. I learned to hold my papers in whichever hand was closest to him.

Is that creepy or what? To explain, I must go back 40 years, to one of the formative experiences of my youth.

In high school, I attended Bill Gothard‘s Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts, since renamed the Basic Seminar. You can visit that link to learn the seven main points. Many of them are excellent, but today I want to bark about the second one, which is to get under the “umbrella of protection” that God-given authorities provide:

Under each umbrella of protection, God sets in place the leadership of His choice, just as He placed Moses in leadership under the “umbrella” over Israel. So, under each umbrella of protection, God raises up and establishes the human leadership to represent Him before the people. These leaders become our human umbrellas, accountable to God for the stewardship of their responsibilities.

I was an insecure teenager trying to get his life together, and that message was very appealing. It was hard enough to negotiate the difficult interactions with my peers; I was only too glad to relinquish to God my sometimes-difficult dealings with authority figures. God had appointed them and if I were to follow their lead, he would take care of me.

I should have seen disaster coming right about here:

[God] provided leadership through Moses. When the people murmured again Moses, they were actually murmuring against God.

Once we equate an earthly authority with God, the fallible human starts to realize they he can get away with anything. The Catholic sex-abuse scandal may come to mind, but the Catholic church is not the only authoritarian power-structure that has problems, as we will see.

It’s amazing how we can lose sight of the old truism that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Our hope is not in authority and submission, but in accountability and mutual, earned respect.

That even goes for relationships with parents, teachers, employers and the law. That’s the genius of democracy. In countries where the law is accountable to the people it governs, there is generally lower crime and better governance. Not to mention more happiness.

So what about the sexually harassed 17-year-old girl at the beginning of this post? Her story would break my heart under any circumstance, but as a former Gothard devotee I feel an extra pang as I tell you where her ordeal took place. She was an employee at Bill Gothard’s headquarters and the man to whom she refers was none other than Bill Gothard himself.

Her story is but one among many reported on a Christian Website called RecoveringGrace. Most of the stories are from people who were abused in families that tried to live by Bill Gothard’s authoritarian, patriarchal principles and often under his control. (“Control,” you ask? Gothard has a home-schooling curriculum that comes with many, many strings. For example, the husband in one family we knew was not allowed to wear a beard, as a condition of using Gothard’s curriculum.) Other stories recount inappropriate conduct by Gothard himself. The common theme is that a hierarchical, authority-oriented culture is a breeding ground for abuse.

By the way, I learned about all this when reading a blog post which also reported that the director of another Christian ministry recently committed suicide while being investigated for the sexual abuse of a 10-year-0ld girl. That ministry, Voice of the Martyrs, was important enough to me at one time that I included them in my will.

*Sigh* doesn’t begin to cover it.

It’s All My Fault

This post goes out to anyone who has ever said, “It’s all my fault” … when, really, it’s not.

Maybe you have a child with a so-called birth defect. Maybe you were mugged. Maybe your child was in a car accident.

In situations like these, the universe seems senseless just when we’re the most desperate for it to make sense.

We don’t want to live in a universe that’s insane, and the solution is simple: We assert the sanity of the universe at the expense of our own.

It’s no accident that sanity and sanitary come from the same Latin root. We want things to be clean and orderly. So, we assert karmic forces and/or gods that reward good and punish evil, relentlessly and perfectly. When bad things happen to me, it’s my fault. Harsh, yes, but at least the universe is in balance. It’s all very tidy.

Ironically, this very pursuit of sanity for the universe causes us to lose our own.

First, we go out of our minds asking, “What did I do to deserve this?” In all likelihood, you did nothing. If you have ever looked for a lost item, you know that there is no surer way to go insane than to look for something that’s not there, especially if you think it ought to be.

Second and more sinister is what happens to our moral faculties. Maybe you did do something wrong, but it was very small compared to the tragedy. Maybe you only thought about doing something, and you fear that the thought itself is being punished. Now, in order to continue believing in the justice of the universe, you must believe that those minor offenses are on a par with what happened to you. You lose all sense of moral proportion. Soon, you will find yourself believing that if you merely call someone a name, you are in danger of eternal hell.

So please, if something bad happens to you and it’s not your fault, then it’s really not your fault. Keep your sanity.

Life: It’s Only a Game

The Curse of the Bambino is Broken

The Curse of the Bambino is Broken

To play any sport well, you must want to win. At a minimum, you must care about playing well. But even the most competitive, dedicated athletes lose from time to time. The healthiest response?

“It’s only a game.”

On one level, sport is a showcase for much that is important about being human: commitment to excellence, training hard to achieve a goal, teamwork, intelligence, and so on. A champion team can boost the morale of a whole city, and a perennial loser can give the entire population an inferiority complex. I should know: I lived in greater Boston when the Curse of the Bambino was finally broken.

On another level, sport is just a way to have some fun and it doesn’t matter who wins. On yet another level, it’ some guys trying to whack a ball with a stick and it’s absolutely pointless. When we say, “It’s only a game,” we’re adjusting our view to regard one of these other levels instead of the level where everything is so darn important.

I think it’s helpful to be able to live like that in all areas.

Sometimes the everyday level where most of our dedication is focused doesn’t work out so well and there’s nothing we can do about it. At those times, it can be healthy to adjust your level.

Some people go up a level to “Everything happens for a reason.” or “This is all part of God’s plan.”

Others go down a level to “This is just how the molecules bump sometimes.”

For me, going down a level works better. Invoking the metaphysical just prompts more questions and more anxiety as I try to figure out what that mysterious reason could be, or why God’s very best plan (what other kind would he have?) had to include this particular element. Other people are by nature less troubled by these questions and for them going up a level works best.

Either way, we’re saying life is only a game: either a training ground for the Great Beyond or a curious and playful phenomenon that emerges from the laws of physics.

If we live every waking moment thinking life is only a game and therefore unimportant, we won’t play well and we won’t be happy. On the other hand, if we can never adopt that perspective, life can be pretty hard.

So, enjoy the game when you can. When you can’t … it’s only a game.