Monday, March 30, 2015

Is God Disappearing? And Is that All Bad?

I think it is fair to say that God has mostly disappeared. And maybe that isn’t all bad.

I was struck by this thought while listening to a new song by Portugal. The Man (Yes, no period. The punctuation is odd). It’s entitled “Modern Jesus.” As I listened the first time, I expected the song to offer up some sort of humanistic alternative to faith but I was struck by the fact that that band didn’t even try. After a rather maudlin swipe at preachers, (“we may be liars preaching to choirs”), all they have is, “the only faith we have is faith in us” and “who cares if hell awaits? We’ve been drinking at heaven’s gate.”

Well, I guess it isn’t so surprising that a group of young men with (as far as I know) no formal education other than some college and no serious history with church or synagogue or mosque doesn’t have anything deep to say about faith, hope, doubt, or God. But their song got me to thinking and so I googled “atheism” and “songs,” and discovered that atheism has just about as many hymns as Christian Contemporary Music does. It’s a popular meme. Religion apparently still has plenty value for those who want a can to kick.

But it goes to show that atheism is a definitely a thing. There’s the music. On the more scholarly front, we have the new atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, doing a reprise of themes from Time Magazine’s 1965 “Is God Dead,” cover. Nearly a quarter of Canadians (slightly lower in the States) won’t list a religious affiliation when asked, and I’m guessing many more are practical atheists—baptized Catholic or United or something like that, and happy for the church’s help when it comes to weddings and funerals, but mostly, they never, ever think of religion.

CNN is also taking note. It ran an interesting article about an atheist family entitled “The Friendly Atheists Next Door.” It’s good because the article tries hard not to caricature the people it highlights. They’re good citizens. Really nice. But don’t believe in God.

All this hits a bit close to home for me for a couple of reasons. I have personally struggled hard—and sometimes still do—with faith. I’m not sold on God, even though I know and understand most of the philosophic and theistic arguments for God’s existence. The only reason I can offer for hanging in there (besides being a pastor) is that it seems to me that God won’t let me go, which is as close as I can get to saying I have a personal relationship with God. So I try to make the best of it—while remaining honest, and seeking, and trying to sort out what in scripture (or other inspired writing) will help my parishioners live a good life, and why. I’m glad to be in a congregation that wants this sort of approach.

While I’m on my church, I can’t help but be aware of the fact that the previous pastor was a post-theist. Not for his entire run, but the last few years. He was done with a sovereign God keeping watch on how everything turned out according to his divine purpose. That, in turn, attracted a few new members who were curious—or convicted—about this approach to Christianity. It’s a complicated story, but the bottom line is that when I preach, I do so knowing that there are people sitting in the pews who, while they understand I am a theist, are thoughtfully critical about a lot of my preaching. When I preach, I constantly need to keep these people—and their agnosticism or atheism—in mind. You may want to know why they go to church at all—but they have their reasons and maybe that’s a column for another time. But they are welcome, involved, and interesting.

All of this reminded me of a book I read a few years ago, and have since dug up. It’s by Richard Elliott Friedman, and entitled, The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery. This Jewish author notes that in the Old Testament, the nature of God’s presence slowly diminishes from beginning to end. He walks and talks with Adam and Eve. By the time of Noah, and the patriarchs, he only makes special appearances, often veiled in fire or confused as encounters with angels. Moses gets to see a burning bush and the back of God, and all the people see a pillar of fire and cloud, and they don’t want to see more. When Miriam and Aaron ask if God has only spoken through Moses, God answers from a column of smoke and says that in the future he will make himself known to prophets in visions. The last persons the Bible says God “revealed” himself to are Samuel and Solomon. The last great public miracle happens on Mount Carmel when Elijah calls down fire from heaven. Excepting Daniel—problematic on many accounts—for the rest it is all visions and dreams.

In the New Testament God reveals himself in human flesh so ambiguously, so mysteriously, that many who met Jesus, even among his disciples, did not believe he was God. It took the church several hundred years to come to a consensus decision that he was. And as a Unitarian with some Trinitarian tendencies (Check it out here), I’m not sure what I can say about the nature of Jesus’ revelation.

What do we make of the disappearance of God as a progressive diminution in scripture and/or as a cultural reality for us, at least in the West? Well, maybe this—one of the arguments that Friedman also makes. God wants us to grow up.

That is, perhaps God chooses to hide him or herself or itself so that we as humans will own a morality and a destiny that fits with being mature children of God. After all, it is “precisely when humans are closest to God that they rebel most blatantly” (101). Adam and Eve, as well as the Israelites in the desert, not to mention Solomon, all come to mind. For all their walks with God, Abraham and Sarah both laughed at God’s promises. Moses didn’t get to enter the Promised Land. “I shall hide my face from them. I shall see what their end will be,” God explains. And Isaiah adds, “Indeed, you are a God who hides himself.” 

Why does God hide himself? Maybe Friedman is right. God’s desire—as the Biblical writers understood it, was ultimately that humans should grow up. “Gradually from Genesis to Ezra and Esther, there is a transition from divine to human responsibility for life on earth. The story begins in Genesis with God in complete control of the creation, but by the end humans have arrived at a stage at which, in all apparent ways, they have responsibility for the fate of their world” (30).

So maybe it isn’t such a bad thing that God is disappearing. But then, at the same time, a big responsibility too. It involves, whether you go to church or not, a commitment to doing more than drinking at heaven’s gate, here and now.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Meaning of Life. I Think.

Having changed my mind about the old certainties my faith and church handed down to me, I wonder more than ever about the meaning of life. I have some ideas. In fact, I’m writing a book. I may call it The Meaning of Life (I Think). The title is tongue-in-cheek. It will increase curiosity while dampening expectations.

Many people—sometimes whole societies—get the answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life,” dead wrong. I certainly think that I have, in the past. We do so because we cannot escape the prejudices of our time or the loyalties we were schooled in.

It’s a common problem, not unique to us. Take Pieter Schuil, for example. Pieter is a first cousin of mine, four generations back, on my mother’s side. I know about Pieter because I have a copy of his diary.
Pieter Schuil c. 1899

Pieter immigrated to South Africa as a single young man in 1898. In his diary he hints that he emigrated out of a sense of religious duty. The Boers had been recruiting Christian School teachers in the Netherlands. Pieter writes as if he was answering a divine call. But—given the way he describes what he saw and did in South Africa—there is also something of the Romantic wanderer in Pieter. It is possible that he rationalized this wanderlust with a fine religious argument. It is hard to tell.

But Pieter also loved literature. His favourite poet was Heinrich Heine. He wrote his diary with feeling and sensitivity. After reading it—stories about his steamer trip to South Africa; of riding a mail cart to Rustenburg with a secret policeman as his companion; of getting caught in a raging thunderstorm, at night, on the veld—after reading his diary I found I really liked my distant cousin. Even more, I saw something of myself in Pieter: romantic, a writer, religious, introverted, a bit of a dreamer. Someone who wanted to get just far enough away from his roots to find true meaning on his own.

It was a valiant effort on Pieter’s part, but he failed, I think. He was drafted into the Anglo-Boer war. He mostly served as secretary for his commanding officer. When his commando—his guerrilla unit—went off to fight, his fellow soldiers usually made him hang back, to watch the horses. That’s what he was doing when the English overran his position. They claimed that Pieter then lowered his Mauser rifle, with a white flag of surrender attached to it, and blasted away. He and his fellow Boer soldiers denied it. He was court-martialled that night and shot by a firing squad the next morning, October 2, 1901. The novel and the poems he had written before the war, and buried for safekeeping, have never been recovered. A suburb of modern Rustenburg sits over his old schoolhouse.

Pieter’s execution was tragic. So too the disappearance of his life’s work. But the tragedy was actually far worse. I discovered, reading his diary, that Pieter was also a deeply racist person whose attitude mirrored the systemic racism of his Boer compatriots, his church, and all of his wider society—including English South Africa. He fought to establish a Republic where Africans would be treated as sub-human.

Pieter consistently uses the racist term “Kaffir,” or sometimes “Kaffir Boy.” It means “person without religion,” and so, more properly, “someone less than human,” or “a soulless person.” It was a term that allowed Pieter and other whites to deal with Africans as if they were animals rather than people. He describes the Zulu as “uncivilized” and “notorious for their bloodlust.” He condemns the English for arming Africans, because this shows far too much trust and respect.

Pieter also willingly, if not enthusiastically, fought in an unjust war. Granted, the judgment of history is that the war was especially unjust on the English side. They invaded two independent Boer republics mostly because gold had been discovered in them. The English habitually conquered nations and territory for the glory of the Crown and private economic benefit. That is the whole idea behind Imperialism.

History’s judgement on the Anglo-Boer War is also deeply coloured by the fact that the English used it as the occasion to invent modern concentration camps. During the course of the war, tens of thousands of Africans and Boers, the latter mostly women and children, died in them amid absolutely appalling conditions.

But beside the petty geopolitical concerns of England and the small Republics, both the Boers and the English fought their war without any regard for their African neighbours. It was a white man’s war that brought ruin, death, hunger, and disaster upon all the Africans it touched, in large measure because neither the Boers nor the English seemed to believe that Africans were fully human.

Boers shot Africans in the employ of the English forces as a matter of course, like dogs. The English rounded up Africans who worked on Boer farms and threw them into concentration camps. And when, at war’s end, the issue of reparations for devastated Boer farmers was discussed, nothing was forthcoming for the Africans who suffered as badly—or worse--than anyone else. During the final peace negotiations, the Boers even managed to exclude Africans and coloureds from receiving the franchise at the end of the war. Voting rights were based on wealth and property, so very few Africans even in the English Cape Colony had the wherewithal to vote, and even fewer would have been able to do so in the old Boer Republics. But still, it was another case of showing complete disdain Boers like Pieter had for Africans, their humanity, and their rights.

And as he sought to make something of his life, wrote his diary and poetry and novel, none of this seems to have dawned on Pieter. He was used by all the prejudices of his age and tribe. For all of his other qualities, he lived and died for causes that we today recognize as badly mistaken, unjust, and even evil.

I liked Pieter, as he spoke to me across the years; but I was horrified too. How could such an intelligent, sensitive, Bible-believing idealist be so wrong about almost everything?

Well, he was merely a child of his time and place, some will say. And yes, of course, that’s true. And perhaps it even helps us empathize with Pieter a little bit, forgive him even, for his racism and miscalculations about what was most important in life.

But there’s the rub, too. We’re all children of our time. Perhaps the single most difficult task for anyone who really wants to explore what life is all about is to figure out how to set our time and place aside, so that we can see things as they are.

It is almost impossible to do so. How do we set aside the entitlement, for example, that allows us to consume earth’s resources, raise its temperature, eat well while millions go hungry, and so on? How do we set aside our own racist, or patriotic, or faith-based presuppositions long enough to recognize them, let alone weigh them?

When our great grandchildren learn how we built our suburban mansions, fought overseas wars with pilotless drones, ate meat, treated First Nations, coddled the banks and big corporations, fished the sea empty, frittered out time away playing games on TV or shopping, and argued about original sin in our cozy churches—will our great grandchildren think we understood the meaning of life?

Living in a specific time and place is like sleeping under a heavy blanket in a bedroom where the window has been left open in February. I used to have to do that, because my parents thought it was healthy. So, I pulled the blanket tight around me, and even buried my head under it. In fact, I found that sleeping in this warm cocoon was actually a real joy.

That’s how it is for most of us, even today, when it comes to finding meaning for our lives. We usually sleep through it unawares, dreaming fractured dreams, bundled in our churches and tribes, hopeful that nothing will disrupt our reverie.

Not very helpful when it comes to truly understanding what life is really all about. And probably one of the biggest challenges I face if I’m ever going to get started on my book, The Meaning of Life (I Think).


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

John Suk's Interview of Karen Armstrong

I interviewed Karen Armstrong, author of Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, about this her latest book. Ms. Armstrong was gracious and fascinating, both. She is also, of course the author of many more books that have been bestsellers. The History of God is my personal favourite.

I did the interview last November, and it is published in the United Church Observer. You can find it here: Fields of Blood Interview