If God, Then Why? (Pt 1)

EC052D8B-883C-4619-B66C-805916CD4758Why do bad things happen to innocent people?

You might as well ask, “why do bad things have to happen — period?”

And we do ask. At a time when there is this seemingly inexhaustible supply of “bad things” taking place the world over, from barbarism in the Middle East to indiscriminate violence in America’s cities and suburbs, this question of “why” is never far from our public and private consciousness.

This foundational question goes even deeper, because it speaks to our understanding of who we are and how we came to be.

When Americans are asked whether they believe such an entity as God exists, they speak overwhelming in the affirmative: nine of out ten, according to Gallop (though the numbers are trending down from a high of 98 percent in 1967 to 92 percent in 2011). Now how they define God and his nature is as broad and as diverse as is all of humanity.

But despite that diversity of belief, there does appear to emerge a few, universally accepted concepts that transcend many religious doctrines, including the idea that God’s nature is sympathetic, even loving toward his creation. It’s certainly the foundational truth of American’s largest religion, Christianity, in which 73 to 80 percent of the population profess to believe. ‘God is love’ the Apostle John writes in one of his letters to the early Christian church. In fact, the precept that God loves his creation, and that “his intentions toward us are for good and not for evil” is the dominant theme of the New Testament.

Nearly as wide spread a precept that God is love is the idea that God is all-powerful and engages — at some level — in human affairs.  For those who give credence to the tenants of the Judeo-Christian faith, God is not only undeniably the creator, but there are examples throughout the Old and New Testaments of God’s direct and miraculous intervention in the life of his people.

Unlike the stories of Greek mythology, for example, which have never been intended or interpreted as anything other than myth, the events depicted in the Bible are widely accepted by scholars as historic narrative. This is not so much a statement of faith, but of the accepted methodologies for discerning the intent of literature. Reasonable people can question whether Moses parted the Red Sea or Jesus restored sight to the blind. But what we can not do — at least not with any great objectivity — is argue these stories were meant to be interpreted as anything other than a narrative of actual events.

So two of the most widely held precepts of God, that he is all-powerful and all-loving, can quickly become flash points of heated debate when life turns harsh. There are those who believe faith in an unseen God is not only irrational, but dangerous. From their perspective, to speak to grief stricken parents about a loving, all powerful God is not only not comforting but cruel and taunting.

“If God is all-loving and all-powerful, then how do you explain away not only a Sandy Hook or a Columbine, but the countless other tragedies and cruelties that plague humanity each and every day?” They reason that if God exists, he doesn’t care, in which case he is not all loving. Or, if he does care, then he is ineffectual, thus eliminating the possibility he is all powerful.

In the study of logical arguments, this would be known as adductive reasoning, where based upon observed cause and effect, you draw a reasonable [but not necessarily correct] conclusion.  You awake and look out the window and you see your front lawn soaked with water, much more so than would normally occur from a morning dew.  From this observation you might deduce there was a heavy rain from the night before. But perhaps what you didn’t know is that your spouse awoke early and ran the sprinklers long before you even got out of bed.

To conclude the presence of evil disproves the existence of an all-powerful and loving God fails to test the implied assumptions from such an argument. The implied assumption here is that if such a god did exist, the result would be a world that achieves a certain degree of homeostasis, where order is the norm and chaos is rare or nonexistent.

To a partial extent, one could argue that definition is not too far removed from the world in which we live. Just as a violent storm, no matter how destructive, is not the normative pattern for weather, neither is the malevolent individual the standard bearer for humanity. The overwhelming preponderance of the seven billion or so humans who inhabit this planet are non-violent and will live out their days in relative peace with their neighbor. The cruel individual, it can be reasonably argued, is an aberration. Of course, logic and probability are a poor solace to those left in the wake of a tragedy, be it natural or man-made.

To the skeptic then, it is reasonable to assume that a single tragedy would be enough to argue against the existence of God — or at least against one who claims to be all loving and all powerful.

Turn that assumption around and see it through to its logical conclusion. Let’s imagine for argument sake such a world is possible: evil has been eradicated and mankind is no more capable of inflicting chaos and tragedy upon itself then it is of sprouting wings and taking flight. No more Rwanda’s or Columbines.  No more cruelty. No more senseless violence.

But before we get too far down this road, how should this God address the modestly “bad” behavior each of us exhibit, to one degree or another, just about every day? Clearly, not every man-induced tragedy is caused by murderous individuals. The antecedents of most tragedies are significantly more benign.

How many of us, for example, have cut off another car in traffic? Maybe we were in a hurry or perhaps we just wanted to feel powerful.  But in a country where thousands more people die on the highway each year than in an acts of random violence, wouldn’t this God we imagine need to reign in aggressive drivers to maintain our tragedy-free existence? In the final analysis, is it any less traumatic to lose your child to a random accident than it is to random violence?

Or what about the unhappy husband who feels unloved and under-appreciated at home, so much so that he becomes entangled with an adoring co-worker at the office? And what if this entanglement leads to a decision to leave his wife and young son and start a new family? So now we have a single mom, a boy without a father, economic hardship and a ripe breeding ground for resentment, juvenile delinquency or worse.

This God is faced then with some terrible choices: he could remove, for example, the ability for humans to make bad or selfish decisions, and hard wire in us only the ability to act wisely and unselfishly; or he could choose to eliminate the “bad person” before they have the opportunity to inflict any damage.

If we choose Option A then goodness or evil cease to be known concepts. Consider we only understand that such a thing as “good” exists because we have something in which to compare it against.  One of many problems we run into with this option is that the kind of God who purports to love his creation would have no more interest in programming goodness and obedience in the hearts of his creation then we would have to implant a computer chip in our children’s brains so their only choice would be their unswerving devotion and spotless behavior (though admittedly, a tempting concept). Their love wouldn’t be any more meaningful to us than a robotic human race would be to God.

There are many definitions of love, but most of us would agree it must be freely given and freely received.

The elusive answer then to the age-old question of whether God can create a rock too big for him to move might be “no”. It’s entirely possible that God in his nature can not or will not create automatons who have no ability to choose any path but the right one. To force or coerce someone to freely make a choice is a contradiction, and therefore impossible.

What about the other option, where God simply removes those individuals who pose the biggest risk to society? The same reasoning applied above, where neither God or humans desire an entire race of Stepford children, applies here as well. Would a loving parent ever see the eradication of their off-spring as a viable option in dealing with a rebellious or difficult child? Again, if flawed and moderately selfish humans would reject this option then it is reasonable to presume the same would hold doubly true for a God who is all loving and all-powerful.

And just how bad, by the way, would you have to get before God decides to “take you out”? We could agree, for example, had Corporal Hitler received a lethal exposure to mustard gas  in World War 1, v. one that merely hospitalized him, mankind would have been better off.  But this option starts to unravel when you apply that kind of thinking to the rest of us.

If God were only to remove those seemingly on a path to destruction, we would never know whether a positive role model or good mental health care would have changed the trajectory of a person’s life. Instead, we would live in this terrifying existence where dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of people every day would be vaporized or just collapse on the street, without any reasonable explanation. Or perhaps these individuals are the only ones who contract a deadly disease or are stillborn. However it is accomplished, eventually, we would catch on that someone, or something, is weeding out the “defectives” among us. Think Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” being fully realized to its terrifying, ultimate conclusion.

Because these strategic strikes would occur before any of these individuals had a chance to do any real harm, the only thing that would tie these victims together is they all appear to operate, in varying degrees, outside the acceptable societal norm.  At some point, social scientists would be able to demonstrate a strong connection between anti-social behavior and a shorter life span.

Talk about creating a breeding ground for paranoia in parents! Already the average mom and dad are concerned when Johnny has trouble making friends and spends all of his time holed up in his bedroom. Now ratchet up the stakes, where not only is their child in danger of facing a future as a friendless loner, but now they they must consider the very real possibility that god, or nature, might brand their child as defective and “take it out,” much the same way a scientist might toss a failed experiment in the trash.

Continued

 

If God, Then Why? (Pt 2)

DD9B1CA9-C35A-4D3D-90A9-EB1572D89F5DThere are quite possibly a limitless number of scenarios on which we could speculate. We are limited only by our imagination. My intent is not to answer every question and solve every riddle. Nor was it to provide irrefutable evidence or logic to dismiss those who question God’s existence. I don’t have the time, or breadth of intellect to cover every contingency. Rather, I was motivated to challenge some of the lazier conclusions that seem to be gaining credibility in the public arena.

Chief among these conclusions is the argument that says the presence of evil or tragedy is conclusive proof that the existence of an all loving, all powerful God is a myth.

But as much as today’s new atheist would like us to believe non-belief is some inescapable, scientific fact, it’s tough to skirt the evidence so many of our conclusions are shaped by our environment, our education and our culture. Those who call themselves believers are not off the hook here either and can do their faith an injustice when they offer up recycled cliches that often fall woefully short in honestly and respectfully grappling with sincere objections.

The well-meaning religious person who says “it is God’s will” or “your loved one is now in a better place” really has no better insight on what God had in store for any one individual and so their answer does not provide any more solace than does the humanist who speaks to the “random, meaningless nature of our existence.”

The Christian narrative tells us that behaving badly, from the kind that grabs headlines to that which “merely” splinters relationships, is the result of a world that has declared its independence from its maker, either by shaking a fist denying God’s very existence and claim on our lives, to a more nuanced, passive indifference where our concept of god is more comfortably “re-imagined” and we create for ourselves a malleable, but socially acceptable moral code.

The spectrum of bad behavior is long and varied, but it can be argued the same DNA from which springs forth murder, can be found in different doses, lesser strains with the seeds each of us plant every day of gossip, lying, envy and malice. The prophet Jeremiah writes in the Old Testament the “human heart is desperately wicked, deceitful, who can know it?” Whatever your belief, it is hard to refute if it were possible to cure what ails the human heart, you would cure much of what plagues humanity.

The Bible teaches the existence of evil, whatever its gradations, is the direct result of man’s alienation from God and no amount of “good” behavior, higher state of consciousness or even religion can erase it from the human experience.

In fact the Bible says the more we deny God’s claim on our lives, the more God will hand us over to the autonomy we desire, the more morality will unravel and the line that separates right from wrong becomes further distorted. Christianity at its core is a restoration project where God seeks to restore the relationship between himself and his creation. And it is only within the context of that relationship that God can heal the human heart.

Through the centuries, man has alternatively embraced and rejected the Christian message.  Often, a chief excuse for rejecting the message has been Christianity’s many imperfect representatives.  Critics are unaware or refuse to acknowledge the transformative and restorative work done over the ages by those who say they are Christians, and instead point to the various harms committed by those who claim to follow the very same God (“Christianity More Harm Than Good?“). But poor facsimiles of the truth, whether in a church pew or a science lab, is not by itself a logical reason to conclude therefore that truth must not exist.

At the end of the day, whatever our belief, it is tough to refute there is a mystery and an uneasiness that surrounds every tragedy. When really bad things happen there is no more human response then to ask “why?”.  We desperately want answers that are solid and reassuring because the very ground we stand on, our understanding of how life “should be” has been horribly, irrevocably assaulted.  And although our question is not rhetorical, we are not necessarily seeking an empirical-based answer. Think about it: a psychiatrist might answer that question in terms of mental health; a social scientist might point to our environment, but that’s not necessarily what we mean when we ask “why”.

Biblical Christianity does not provide easy answers as to why some live a life free of tragedy, while others are cut down in their prime. The rain, Jesus told the crowd that had gathered to listen to him, falls on the just and unjust alike. Christianity instead says there is more to our existence than what we can see, hear, touch and reason our way through. In fact, that longing and recognition that things here on earth are not quite as they “ought to be” was planted in the heart of every human so we would look beyond ourselves and our own circumstances to answer life’s most important questions.

Tragedy, whether it befalls the good or the less good, doesn’t change that equation. Instead it is a painful reminder we live in a broken, fallen world. Real life then, real meaning, can only be found in and through the creator.  And this is not a creator indifferent to our sufferings. The gospel message, in fact, is that God’s posture toward us is so much more than just “not indifferent”: For God so loved his creation that he gave us his only son, and if we would place our hope, our trust and our very lives in his hands, we would know an existence whose boundaries extend well beyond this mortal life, with all its temporal joys and sorrows, and into eternity.

Religion v the Gospel

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A transcript of a short talk by Terran Williams, Teaching Pastor from Common Grounds Church in Cape Town, South Africa (http://commonground.co.za/ )

Let me tell you what I didn’t like about Christianity. Basically I saw it as another ladder, another religion. 

I know fantastic people of all faith persuasions, but let’s face it – that’s what religions are. They are ladders to God. They can be summed up like this: ‘I obey, then God accepts me’. You have to climb the ladder by obeying all the moral and religious rules. 

I love Thailand. There – and in Nepal – I have met wonderful Buddhists. I have asked them about their religion. It’s all about the Noble Eightfold way. Buddha started it. It’s a lot of hard work – relinquishing your earthly desires, endless rituals, spinning prayer wheels – but at the end of it, there’s Nirvana (that’s my middle name by the way.) You obey, then you’re accepted. A ladder. 

I love Indonesia. Other than being surf-heaven, it’s the most populous Muslim nation in the world. There I have asked people about their religion. (Mind you I have met quite a few Muslims here in Cape Town.) It’s all about the five pillars of Islam. It’s a ladder. I obey – I say my prayers, I fast, I take the pilgrimage – then I am accepted. 

I love India. Been there twice. The Hindu nation of the world. So many varieties of Hinduism, but at the heart of it, it’s a ladder. There’s the law of karma constantly rewarding good deeds, constantly repaying bad deeds. Visiting the temples, bringing offering to the gods. Obey, then you’re accepted. 

I’ve never been to Israel. But I grew up in Sea Point, the Jewish capital of the Cape. So many wonderful Jewish friends. My orthodox Jewish friends live by the Torah, the law, with the Ten Commandments as its center. It’s a ladder. I obey, then I am accepted. 

I grew up sort of connected to one version of Christianity. I don’t remember what they actually said, but I will tell you what I heard – ‘Obey God. Come to church, read the Bible, pray, don’t be bad. Then you will be accepted.’ That was my problem with Christianity. Another ladder. 

What’s so bad about a ladder? Well, it tends to either puff you up or break you down. Some people are really good ladder climbers. They seem to be good at sticking to the rules. But you know what I notice in these people. They are confident (because they’re at the top of the ladder) but not that humble (because they got there through their own sweat). And these people have a way of being – I don’t know how else to say this – proud, better than the rest of us. They’re confident but not humble – puffed up. 

On the other hand, some people like me are really bad ladder climbers. We’re no good at sticking at the rules. I don’t know about you, but by the time I was a teenager I could have filled a book with shameful things I’d done and said and thought – most of which I felt no shame for. I met many of these people in these religions who were poor ladder climbers. Falling short of their standards, and of God’s acceptance, they were broken by their religion. Humble but not confident. (Eastern faiths for example often suggest it will take many lifetimes to achieve moksha/salvation.) 

That’s my problem with ladders, with religions. Some people in that religion end up being confident, but not humble. Others end up humble, but not confident. I can think of better things to do with my time, with my life. 

I would have walked past Jesus. But when I was 16, after tragically losing my father, I made the discovery of my life. I heard a verse that said, ‘It is by God’s grace that you are accepted, not because of any of your good works – so you can’t boast about your relationship with God’ (Ephesians 2:8-9). That didn’t sound like a ladder. It sounded too good to be true. 

But it was true. I found that at the heart of Christianity is a cross, not a ladder. Unlike all the great religions of the world, Jesus is the only one who openly confronted the ladder-approach to God, and replaced it with something totally different. 

Something that cost him, not us, everything. The cross. 

You see, Jesus says, ‘God accepts you. Now you want to obey.’ See, he flips it on its head. None of us are good enough, says Jesus. We’re flawed and selfish in the deepest ways. So he does something amazing: he descends the ladder and dies for us on the cross. God takes your and my shameful ways and puts it on Jesus on the cross, and punishes it there. And he takes Christ’s acceptance and puts it on all those who trust in him. The cross is God’s way of accepting people like me who have lived unacceptably. God loves me so much that he’d rather die than live without me! (Which is what he did). 

As a teenager I understood it for the first time. I kicked away the ladder. I got on my knees at the foot of the cross. And there and then, God’s grace fell upon my life. Waves of mercy broke over my undeserving soul. 

You know what started to happen next? Two things. I became much humbler. I realized I was just as messed up as everybody else, probably more messed up than most. I didn’t need to hide that anymore. I can never look down on others! But I also became more confident. Jesus had done for me what I could never do for myself. Now I can live every day of my life accepted by God. Not because of my good deeds, and despite the bad things I sometimes do, all because of the goodness and the sacrifice of Christ! 

I can’t explain what a source of humility and confidence, awe and joy this has been to me over the years. It melts my heart every time I think about. It makes me want to live for God. More than that, it empowers me to live for God. Not to earn his acceptance, but because I already have it! 

All because Jesus descended the ladder, broke it and turned it into a cross. Now sinners like me can meet God, not at the top of a ladder but at the foot of a cross.

A Conversation — albeit one-sided — with Alan Turing

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Recently, I went to see The Imitation Game, the WW II drama that chronicles the story of British mathematician Alan Turing and how he led a team of cryptographers to crack a previously-thought-to-be indecipherable Nazi code. His contributions are said to have played a decisive role in shortening the war and saving hundreds of thousands of lives. To this day, he is considered by many as the ‘father of computer science’ and artificial intelligence. The movie also effectively depicts his isolation as a gay man struggling to navigate life in a decidedly closeted society. Ultimately, his secret life is exposed and is given a choice by the courts to either spend two years in prison or submit to chemical castration. He chooses castration and the cumulative effect of this inhuman “treatment” leaves him a physical, emotional shell. A year later, he takes his own life.  This was a hugely engrossing, but tragic story where you couldn’t help but feel great sadness for this troubled man. After the movie, I did a little research (if Wikipedia qualifies as “research”) on Turing and discovered that among other things, he was an atheist. That he did not believe in god was not much more than a footnote on his Wikipedia page. Yet, I was struck and saddened this gifted thinker, from whose mind and hands brought forth this technologically sophisticated piece of machinery, had some how made peace with the notion that an infinitely more marvelous machine — namely, himself — was brought forth by an act of sheer, random chance. Thus, this fanciful entry…

Professor Turing, it is clear after watching your story and reading about your life that you are one of the most remarkable thinkers of the 20th century.

I think about this marvelous machine you conceived and constructed. From your intelligence, you brought forth what was at the time, the most advanced technology known to man. The impact of your work is felt to this day.

In watching your story, I had another impression. Please tell me how close I land to the truth.

It was hard to miss the poor regard you exhibited toward those whose intellect you thought inferior to your own, which judging from the film, was just about everyone. I imagine you decided long ago there was no utility in trying to appear less than what you are.

Your great pride in your intelligence, and the disdain you displayed for the more meager gifts of others, infers, at least to a degree, you view your intellect not so much as a gift, but as a possession earned, or rightly deserved. I say this because if you believed your intellect to be a gift, something bestowed upon you, then you would be beholden to something (fate?) or someone (a creator). But there is no sense in watching your story you were beholden to anyone but yourself.

Now consider your machine for a moment. There is great intelligence evident throughout its design and function. There is no question to anyone, with even a cursory understanding of its construction, that behind its existence there is a brilliant mind. No one would suppose for a moment it came into existence on its own.

For the sake of illustration, I want to suggest a purely whimsical scenario where your machine somehow, magically, comes to life.

Imagine the conversation the two of you would have!

Now further imagine, if after a while, your machine becomes so imbued with its fine-tuned mechanics and precision that it begins to believe it owes its existence, not to you, but to itself.

What would your reaction be? I could envision you would laugh derisively and remind it that without you, the machine is nothing but a bunch of bolts, wires and steel: “How ludicrous that you would even for a moment begin to imagine yourself as your own creator! You are merely the invention, where I am the inventor. You exist only because I willed it. You owe me your very existence. How foolish, how utterly foolish of you to think otherwise!”

You understand an intelligent machine such as yours could only come from an even greater intelligence. No matter how marvelous your invention, I don’t imagine you think its intellect greater than your own.

Your machine was programmed to perform very specific tasks, tasks you yourself scripted. Unlike man, it does not have the ability on its own to teach itself new skills and start performing other tasks, such as forecasting the weather or composing poetry.

Intelligence, I think we can agree, comes from intelligence.

And yet, you are somehow at home with the belief this principle does not apply to you. You apparently came to believe your great mind came into existence through what, an accident, the natural evolution of some random, inexplicable beginning? Unlike that of your machine, whose capabilities are vastly inferior to your own, you believe yourself to be your own benefactor. You are beholden to no one. You are your own god.

Election Dejection

EDF75828-411C-4AB6-B5CA-1CC788866B16The morning after the election, I sat down to breakfast with a dozen other men for our weekly bible study. There was, among some, a gallows sense of humor about the bleakness of the country’s prospects in the months and years ahead. A month or so ago, I would have eagerly joined in the conversation. Heck, I would have led it. But I felt decidedly different that a.m., and that feeling has since deepened.

In the weeks leading up to the election, as John McCain’s prospects steadily worsened, I steeled myself for what I thought was the inevitability of Obama’s election. I told everyone I spoke with that it was all over for McCain and that Obama was going to be our next president. And that we better get used to the idea. Still, the night of the election, my resolve left me and I became increasingly anxious and even depressed about an Obama presidency. I had nothing against him personally; like many people I found him to be an inspirational figure, but on many issues of importance to me and my business, our values contrasted sharply. I was a life-long Republican; he was a Democrat. I was not necessarily excited about John McCain but for better or for worse, he was my guy.

As I lay in my bed that night, I felt a strong need to pray and ask that God would change my perspective. I didn’t want to be despondent about the election. I didn’t want to join in all of the “gloom and doom” emails I knew would be in my inbox the following morning. I wanted to be able to heartily congratulate the Obama supporters I knew I would run into the next day and at church on Sunday.

There are times when I pray and minutes later I will forget that I even prayed, much less remember for what it is that I prayed. But this time it was different. The results were startling. I was able to pick up the newspaper the next morning without the sense of dread that I think would have been there had God not intervened. In fact, as I went through the next couple of days, I actually grew excited about the possibilities of his presidency.

This is what our pastor would call “a God thing,” because that is not where my head and my heart were just a few days earlier.

At the risk of sounding preachy, I want to urge all of those out there who did not vote for Obama to resist the temptation to engage in disparaging our new president. Instead, consider taking a different tact in the weeks, and months ahead when conversations inevitably turn to politics.

Our country is divided on so many levels: race, politics, economics. And that discourse often turns ugly – even among Christians. We are supposed to be different. I am not saying we are supposed to become silent drones over the next four years and pretend we support Barack Obama’s every initiative. But we can speak respectfully about him and gently encourage other believers to do the same. And most important, we can pray for him — for wisdom and for his safety.

I had committed weeks ago to stop engaging in negative talk about Obama. But I didn’t have any heart change. It wasn’t until I started praying for a new perspective that real change occurred.

We have an opportunity to build bridges where perhaps, they did not previously exist. The love and self-control we demonstrate to others now have eternal consequences and will outlast any legacy of the next four to eight years.