Monday, September 12, 2005

When God was an Atheist

"At noon the sky became extremely dark. The darkness lasted three hours. At three o'clock, Jesus groaned out of the depths, crying loudly, 'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?' which means, 'My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?'"
Mark 15:33-34, The Message Remix by Eugene Peterson

"Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt omnipotence made God imcomplete. Christianity alone has felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point--and does not break...let the atheists themselves choose a god. THey will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist."
G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

The biggest objection to the existence of God seems to be this: that life is, at best, monstrously unfair. Forget about proof and logic and faith and science. Convincing cases can be made on both sides about God's existence. People don't really look at that sort of evidence when deciding whether God is or is not. We look at life, and a great many intelligent and compassionate people see the world as hopeless and savage, and decide that if babies can be born HIV-positive and addicted to cocaine, if natural disasters can strike without warning and wipe out the lives and livelihoods of people who were already at the bottom of the totem pole, then all this talk about a big Invisible Man in the Sky who cares about us is just crap. Something to make us feel better. People object that even if God is real, he's apparently kind of a dick. Life is unfair and we don't need the opiate of the masses telling us about heaven when we need to make the best of life on earth. This is the objection I hear most of all, and it is not to be ignored.

For there is much truth to it. Life, frequently, sucks. Ask anybody in New Orleans. It's not fair. And every time some disaster happens you hear the same claptrap from religious people: they deserved it. Usually it's some Christian preacher with a hard-on for blaming the victim, but the other night I saw the Dalai Lama explain that the Buddhist point of view is that bad things happen because of karma from a past life. I admit to knowing little of Buddhism, but that seemed to be what he was saying. Apparently a major rabbi in Jerusalem has also blamed Katrina on human guilt. People tend to look at natural disasters (or just the presence of evil and pain in the world) and conclude either that Life is unfair, so God doesn't exist, or that God does exist, so life must be fair, so bad things happen to bad people.

Although I understand both these answers, I find them both totally unsatisfying. I dislike the first one because I have to wonder where people got the idea that the innocent shouldn't suffer. If there's no God or Higher Power or morality or something, if life is just random, then where the heck did we ever get the idea that it was not? Where did we get this dream for a time/place that is fair, that is right? For there is power in dreams. Ask Ghandi or Dr. King. Without the dreams of these men (and great men and women like them) the world would be a great deal worse. The idea of a totally random, chaotic, morally indifferent world just doesn't seem to fit with the power of dreams, with the effectiveness (with the very existence) of hope.

And yet the Bible is quite sympathetic to the atheistic viewpoint. Many of the Psalms, the entire book of Job, Habakkuk, and the words of Jesus himself on the cross demonstrate the very real feelings of hopelessness and despair that are all too often a part of life. What does it mean when Jesus asks God why he has abandoned, forsaken him? Left alone, to die. His friends gone, his mission an apparent failure. Skip for a moment the Christian idea that somehow Jesus was God, just think about the Man, dying, alone, and hopeless. Even if you think of Jesus as simply a great moral teacher, for him to look into the heavens and say to God, "Where the hell are You?" is an astonishingly brave thing for the Bible to portray.

It is a cry I understand and sympathize with more than I do with those who claim to have God all figured out and stuffed and mounted on a wall. I think the Bible understands and sympathizes with it more as well. In Job, there are 3 characters who represent the traditional religious viewpoint of blaming the victim. This view is understandable too, at least. To let go of the idea that only bad people have bad things happen to them requires more faith than some seem to have. To accept both chaos (the randomness of evil) and order (karma, sowing and reaping) as part of life is to walk a narrow path between two pits. But then Jesus did say something about the path being narrow.

At the end of Job, the 3 friends are told to repent, for they have wrongly tried to defend God with bad arguments. So I'm trying to defend God less. I don't know why bad things happen to good people. I have a feeling it has to do with the idea that, if this world is to be real, if it is to count, there must be an element of danger and chaos. But I do not agree that chaos is all there is. Nor do I want some grey, watered down blend of chaos and order. I accept both. Life both sucks and is wonderful. The world is fair and just and cruel and barbarous.

But only for awhile. Here's where my faith comes in, because it is a dream. It is the dream of a place that will be fair, and right. And if the dreams of man can change the course of a nation's history (as Ghandi did in India and Dr. King in America) what can the dreams of God accomplish?

When Jesus cried to the sky, Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani, he was repeating the opening line of Psalm 22:

My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?
Why do you remain so distant?
Why do you ignore my cries for help?
Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer.
Every night you hear my voice, but I find no relief.

Yet you are holy. The praises of Israel surround your throne.
Our ancestors trusted in you, and you rescued them.
You heard their cries for help and saved them.
They put their trust in you and were never disapointed.

But I am a worm and not a man.
I am scorned and despised by all!
My strength has dried up like sunbaked clay.
My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.
You have laid me in the dust and left me for dead.

It goes on in that fashion for awhile, alternately complaining of being abandoned and speaking of God's faithfulness in the past. But toward the end, the dream awakes. A vision for the future replaces the pessimism of the present.

Rescue me from a violent death;
spare my precious life from these dogs.
Then I will declare the wonder of your name to my brother and sisters.
The poor will eat and be satisfied.
All who seek the Lord will praise him.
Their hearts will rejoice with an everlasting joy.

There is a pattern that begins to build in the Bible. It's there in the Psalms, it's definitely there in the prophets, and it's there in the teachings of Jesus. There's an honesty about life's apparent hopelessness and evil and yet a dream of a better place, where swords are bent into plowshares and the poor are not oppressed. And my conviction is that the way to that better place is by following Jesus. I believe the objection people have (usually found among the most just, the most compassionate, the most Christlike) that the world just isn't right, is a valid objection. But the way to fix the world is not to conclude that life is unfair and God's not real. I think without the dream of the world being right and fair and good, it never will be. I think that's God's dream.

I guess my point is, yeah, life sucks ass.

For now.


Matt Stone said...

I liked your comments. An interesting perspective.

James said...

Excellent entry. I thought I'd take a moment to write down how I look at this deal from the perspective of an agnostic.

It's true that life has it's ups and downs, but it's always bothered me when people see this as evidence against God. It's so ignorant to say that life should be free of pain and suffering given that life is dependent on pain of one for the benefit of the other. It's at the root of this game called "life". There's a constant theme of extreme balances for survival – this is a fact regardless of your belief system. You can't deny that even with a God that life is a struggle. Food doesn't fall from the sky, you have to find it, nor does money, or electricity, or clothing, etc. If you accept that a being created you, you have to accept the fact that there's a method to this madness. Conversely, you have to accept that life exists in a world that is dynamic and deadly.

Life is an attempt to preserve genetic information across a struggle and the accumulation of genetic information therein to survive said world (No, I don't see that as depressing, I see this as liberating as it means there are no constraints on my life and it is only the summation of what I make of my life).

There's a great part in Daniel Quinn's "Ishmael" that describes the gods' dilemma of trying to achieve balance in the world, wherein they eventually come upon a solution of balance of pain and benefit. You'd really enjoy this book. Some say it's anti-religious, but I think those people are missing the point. Take a look if you can.

Travis Greene said...

Thanks for your comments, James. I read constantly, so I'll definitely check it out.

Friar Tuck said...

I have restarted posting on my Scripture snippets blog. Would love to see ya stop by.

Friar Tuck said...

The FOR NOW is the key part of your post in my opinion.

Travis Greene said...

You got it exactly Don Juan. The Hebrew Bible's idea of time is quite linear. History has a goal, a culmination, and God wants our involvement in making the world a better place. My point was that I understand the atheist's feelings and objections, but I'd rather be part of the solution than just complain about the problem.

Rod said...


You're definitely called to be a teacher/leader in the Body of Christ. Keep following Him..