Obama is Buddhist?


“God has taken them home.”

So U.S. President Obama accounts for the wanton killing of grade schoolers in Newtown, CT.  But does this view sit well with us?  Does it ease our pain or explain the unthinkable?  And does it present God in a way that encourages trust or hope?

My answer: e) None of the above.

Situations like Sandy Hook are so terrifying that it can be tempting to think that God must be pulling the strings.  We want to believe that someone is in control and that somewhere there is good to be found in it.  Yet ironically, by diminishing human agency and responsibility for evil we likewise strip ourselves of our agency and responsibility for good.

For if this is all God’s will, then really we can do nothing about it: who can resist God?

No.  Far from rekindling hope or even allowing fuller expression of our grief, at best this view results in complacency.  At worst, I reckon it results in despair.

Complacency because taking what is evil and “sanctifying” it (through ascribing it to God) subverts our most natural human responses: should we grieve or feel upset about God’s will?  At best the implication is that our grief and rage are really misplaced—the result of being too limited (or if you theology is more heavy-handed, too sinful) to understand that this is all for some “greater good.”  Ironically again, such a view has more in common with Buddhism than Christianity.

Despair because, faced with this perspective, we must necessarily understand our emotions, goals, and even our children as insignificant—unimportant before the lofty designs of God.  For a god who “calls home” little children via such murderous and seemingly purposeless action is, like a maleficent version of Zeus, a fearful entity indeed.  Before such a God we cannot but despair.

Many reject this god.  And those that accept it?  Well, is it any wonder that so much of evangelical Christianity seems based on fear and rule-following rather than on love and truth?

In reality Obama’s view denies us the very substance that the Psalmist would have us rely upon, both in coming to embrace God and as that which fosters and furthers right relationship with God: the created order, within which we are called to “taste and see” God’s goodness.

Now hear me rightly: I see no goodness in this situation.  It is not something “in light of which” I believe in God but something “despite which” I still believe.  But neither is this a situation where Christians should encourage complacency or despair.  Rather, I think the first step is to recognize that the problem of evil is not simply an issue or even a big issue.  To my mind it is the issue.

And if my personal experience with evil is any guide, the second step is for Christians to stand against it and—in evil’s overwhelming shadow—to tell our tales of how God has acted in our lives to heal and mend us.

And this, I think, is where goodness can possibly be found amid evil: not that God solves our issues or addresses all our concerns, but that in place of evil God offers Godself.  Not through the historical work of Christ or theological explanation, important as these are.  But rather as acts of healing and liberation within our everyday existence that convince our minds, inspire our imaginations, and win our hearts—acts of knowing us more truly than we know ourselves and loving us more deeply than we love ourselves.

So against the view that God’ goodness is invisible or, at best, unfathomable, Christians must not only claim with their words but demonstrate—and attest to how God has demonstrated—in their lived existence that God is good.  And we do so not because of but despite the wanton evil that we are able (and clearly, all too wiling) to inflcit upon each other.

Deception in certainty / deliverance in stories


Have you ever read a novel or biography and found in it something that you had never been able to articulate, or were even unaware of, but which deeply expresses who you are?

Good stories—fictional and historical—capture the most essential aspects of human existence.  They not only convey our most intimate hopes and fears, but they help form who we are and want to become.  Key to making stories “work” is the imagination.

Yet many people see imagination as the enemy of truth.  Truth is real, imagination is not.  Truth is concrete and certain (and so valuable); the imaginary is fanciful and potentially misleading (and so not valuable, or perhaps even dangerous).

Thus the view that “facts are good but stories are bad.”  Or at best, facts and stories are very different creatures.  And particularly when it comes to beliefs, facts give you what you need to know.  Stories are something extra for those who like or want them—like bonus material on a rental movie.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  (Pardon the pun).  Let’s take a closer look.

Interestingly, stories have led us back to knowledge.  And in an earlier post I noted how people believe that they can “access” the Bible’s truth (or Truth) absolutely so as to arrive at certain knowledge: to be without doubt.

Yet as it is impossible simply to “read what is in the Bible” instead of needing to interpret it (whether we are conscious of doing so or not), the upshot is that human beings cannot have certainty.  About anything.  Through any means.  Only God has certainty; humans have varying degrees of probability.

But let’s look deeper.

People believe in “absolute access” in order to arrive at certain knowledge.  This, then, is a belief.  Why do we hold it?  The answer is there: in order to arrive at certain knowledge.  So why is certainty important?  Two reasons present themselves.

First, certainty brings security.  We can live with other viewpoints without feeling threatened by them.  Second, certainty brings rest.  We can be at ease from nagging questions and can instead devote our energies to the truth, where they are best spent.

Interestingly, the enemy is again relativism.  Relativism implies that other views are just as valid as our own, so we must constantly be maintaining their validity.  To circumvent this, some Christians attempt to fortify their knowledge claims: by asserting that what they know is certain—even unassailable—they can feel secure and at ease.

When acquired in the right way and held for the right reasons, security and rest are good things.

As we’ve discussed, though, they cannot be acquired through certainty: certainty is a commodity that humans simply cannot trade in.  But neither can they be held out of pathology.  Because desiring such absolute security is indeed pathological: we are here again faced with a desire to exceed the bounds of what it is to be human and become like God.

It is pathological, too, in that this desire stems from fear and unmet needs.  The fear of wrong beliefs is really the fear of losing our worldview and our very self-understanding (and thus identity).  Further, if a loving God is not real this threatens one’s need to be loved and valued.

So what about stories?

I believe that stories—fictional and historical—deliver us from these excessive (and destructive) perspectives.  Where a desire for absolute security demands certainty, stories invite dialogue with numerous perspectives through our imagination.  And while diversity implies relativism (and doubt), relativism also includes the possibility that matters may be “more” than we had first presumed.

Ironically, it is through opening us to the possible and the essential that stories keep us from falling under the tyranny of the factual and the real.

People, not souls / Selves, not objects

In my last posts I explained why I think evangelical Christianity is a worthwhile subject and how I want to navigate it.  My current concern is to clarify that while this project focuses on ideas, my interest is in people.

Please do not misconstrue this point.  As per my last post, my guiding presupposition is the co-centrality of love and truth / truth and love to human existence and Christianity.  As such, I am NOT interested in “souls.”  I do not really know what a soul is.  I have never met a soul.  Rather, if Christianity is real, it is real ‘here and now’ in my present with tangible indicators that I can both relate to and that bear upon my lived reality.  It must be true “for me.”  So this is not about saving souls or converting people—it is about love and truth in our current existence.  Enough said.

Two points contextualize the subject at hand.  First, how we think about and understand a topic has a significant impact on how we situate ourselves relative to that topic.  Further, it is not only the ideas but their formulation that makes the difference.  In much of what follows I take issue with the formulations that have been handed to us.

On the one hand, I dispute the traditional Christian formulations of certain doctrines and perspectives on how Christianity does—and particularly does not—interact with other areas of human existence (i.e., science, popular literature, economics, etc.).  On the other hand, I take issue with various cultural formulations (or more accurately, the absence of any formulation) regarding personhood, relationships, readers and texts, etc.

Second, who we are thinking about, and what motivates them to think as they do, is equally important.  I am not assuming that I can put myself in the “shoes” of all parties.  But through personal and interpersonal analogy I think we can highlight several prominent motivators.  And by better sensitizing ourselves to the poignancy that these ideas hold I believe we may better understand why they have been formulated as they have (and consequently, why evangelical Christianity engenders such polarized responses).

Concerning Christians, what is often at stake is fear: fear of the possibility that one’s beliefs may not be valid (or that one may not be able to express one’s sense of their validity), or intimidation in the face of navigating the many choices that accompany a belief system.

Moreover, it is my contention (to be fleshed out later) that the evangelical church has inadvertently fueled this by woefully under-informing and misdirecting Christians as to how to interact with science, culture, and much of the world around them.

Concerning non-Christians, what is often at stake is feeling profoundly disrespected at being treated like objects—being viewed as a soul to be saved, rather than a self to be known.  Worse, such Christians typically claim while so acting that “we love you,” “we value you” or, worse, that “God loves you,” whatever that may mean.  In essence, one feels thoroughly off-put not only by this ‘loving’ objectification but by the apparent obliviousness of Christians its absurd contradiction.

Understanding such experiences may help Christians realize why their best efforts with non-Christians often create little other than disdain (from feeling objectified) or dismissal (from the incomprehension that comes from wondering how anyone can possibly believe something so utterly ridiculous and then, believing that way, think that their perspective is of any relevance to the world around them).

In both cases, my wager is that understanding each other more—through listening more—will amount to better knowledge of oneself and the other, which in turn allows for more authentic interactions and greater acceptance: more truth, more love.