Archive for July, 2009

Apostate Anger

Posted in Faith Experience on July 25, 2009 by RWZero

Seeking Magic, Finding None

Thinking back, I realize that not long ago, I was still naïve. I knew that there were atheists and agnostics, but I imagined that most of them retained some smidgen of propriety. I had failed to apprehend how utterly irreverent some of these people could be; of the staggering certainty they must have possessed in order to behave in such ways. When I finally encountered these people, and was shocked at their libertine attempts to offend Christians, I also discovered that many of them had been raised in the church.

Although I was taken aback by my encounters with these people, one thing always seemed out of place: they appeared angry, not merely at the church, but at God himself. I must provide a caveat: I have always detested it when an onlooker, fancying himself a psychiatrist, says, “Ah, but the very thing he hates is the thing that he is.” I do not mean to patronize ex-Christians by suggesting that they secretly long for a connection to God (though I would neither suggest the opposite), but there is a very real sense in which these people appear to be angry at him for not existing.

It’s my belief that the irreverence of some people—not of those who live only to indulge themselves, unmindful of God, but of those who purposefully slander him—is a reaction to there being “no magic,” and perhaps even a challenge to a hypothetical god who would be so cold as to ignore them. Only the most intellectually dishonest atheist denies the possibility that some kind of god may exist, and of all these hypothetical gods, it seems that few would ignore such outright defiance.

It makes sense that a man, having long been prohibited from eating some fruit on account of its magical repercussions, might become obsessed with it. Discovering nothing potent about the fruit, he does not treat it as any other person might, but rather eats it in tremendous quantities, especially in front of those who had warned him about it. (It is simple irony, then, if he should fall ill and die from eating too much of it.)

The man was not eating the forbidden fruit because he took special pleasure in it. At first, it was forbidden by others. With time, he was upset that it had been forbidden at all. Finally, he perceived that those who had forbidden it—however wrong they may have been—had attached something divine to it.

Having found the divine nowhere else, one may begin searching endlessly in the place where it was presumed to be. The onlookers, when shown their folly, may still know something of the divine; they may have latent knowledge of its true nature, and its true whereabouts—and the divine, if existing by chance, may be so offended at the spectacle that it will reveal itself.

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There is No Magic

Posted in Faith and Science, The Narrow Path on July 12, 2009 by RWZero

The World is a Sandbox

We are born into a world of taboos. As we grow up, some of these taboos are lifted, while some are broken in secrecy. Yet there are others, however, which remain throughout our entire lives—and we do not often call them taboos.

“Taboo” is a borderline scientific word. If a man desires to do something, yet abstains from it, he may call it a vice. If he believes that others should abstain from it, he may call it a wrongdoing. If he does not see any good reason why anyone ought to abstain from it, he may call it a taboo.

In line with this thinking, I imagine that some controversy could be generated with statements like these:

Murder is taboo in some societies… a local man has breached contemporary taboos by violating his mother’s corpse… in North American culture, the rape of one’s child is often considered a social taboo, and is punished by the conservative legal systems…

When we distinguish between sins and taboos—between what is wrong, and what is frowned upon—it is more than a simple rationale that separates them. Even if we are not thinking religiously, there is a deep, pervading sense that wrong actions stain the very time and place at which they were committed. We feel that the system itself is offended at what we have done; that a wrong, done to another person, harms more than just that person.

It makes perfect sense that many of us would acquire this intuition. All of our actions as children are monitored, rewarded and punished. Our actions as adults are not without their repercussions. We are trained by cause and effect, and of those things that we have not done, or strive to avoid, we imagine that only the stringent secrecy could contain them. People may be deprived of the truth, but it would still be there; the thing has a life of its own.

In my early teenage years, I played a then-scandalous, then-new game called Grand Theft Auto. You could run over pedestrians, steal cars, and shoot policemen. The only catch was that the more crimes you committed, the more police would chase you, as denoted by a tally of jabbering cop heads that appeared at the top of the screen. If you caused enough damage, they would send the army after you. When playing this game, I did not think to myself “The police found out about what I was doing, and they are making an effort to stop me,” I thought, “The system is reacting to what I have done.” And so it seemed for much of my life, that there were things I could do that would invoke a response from the whole system, and perhaps even God, directly.

Something eventually happened to me. Whether it was by reading a story about a serial killer, or by committing some wrong of my own, I came to realize the frightening truth. We may hunt down serial killers, we may install security cameras, and we may keep a record of wrongs, but the system does not acknowledge the meaning—the gravity—of actions. You can kill a man in a field and throw his body into a well; there will be no earthly consequence if you are not found out and punished by others. The system does not distinguish between the crushing of a melon and the crushing of a skull. Your worst actions do not light up against the backdrop of all the others. Nothing is so bad that it cannot happen. No child is too young to die, no romance is too perfect to be sundered by an unspeakable tragedy on the day of the wedding, no regime is too evil to arise and terrorize a continent. You can do absolutely anything, the laws of physics permitting. There is no magic.

The serial killer Ted Bundy was responsible for many women’s deaths. It is unlikely that he felt he was doing anything extraordinary. Reading about his murders, one cannot help but wonder why “the system” did not react to such a grand and heinous string of crimes. It is for this reason that people, even if they do not take God seriously, exclaim: “How could God let this happen?” They are expecting magic where there is none, and they are looking to the one who might have provided it. But this is not a didactic exercise, and God has not built a classroom; it is recess, and he has built a sandbox.

I do not know why God would build us a world without magic, though I have my suspicions. I do not mean to say that no such forces move beneath the surface of the universe, but that no such thing is regular, nor is it apparent to us. I do not mean to say that we should abandon our instincts. On the contrary, I think that this instinct means something, even if it does not deliver what it promises.

When speaking of taboos, we imagine an action that is mundane in nature, but significant in its effect. When we speak of a wrong, we imagine an action that is significant both in nature and effect. How do we justify this difference? We must be careful. When we discover that there is no magic attached to a wrong action, we forget what it is like to be horrified by it. Soon, we forget to think of it as wrong.

This is my warning to those who separate their taboos and their wrongs. Perhaps the magic you believe in is the same as the magic you don’t.

Balanced Scales

Posted in The Narrow Path on July 5, 2009 by RWZero

To do, or to be better able to do

We all have a purpose in life, even if we have written it for ourselves, or failed to notice what it is. How do we decide on a balance between learning a skill, and putting it to use? It is not a chiefly religious matter, I think, to ask this question. Nonetheless, it is made all the more relevant by faith, because faith demands that we consider the ultimate purpose of everything we do. Much of what we do and and say is an expression of our immediate needs and desires. We may also do some things here or there that express our personal beliefs. I have always believed, however, that in order to claim that I possess a legitimate personal philosophy, or even a legitimate faith, each and every action of mine–that I do not regret, or admit as wasteful–must ultimately work towards fulfilling the concomitant purposes.

When a man commits wrongs, and he proceeds to account for them, he is often told to “stop justifying his actions.” But what of justifying good deeds, according to how they serve a higher purpose? In my own life, everything has seemed to fit into one of only two categories: things I ought to do, and things that I do to improve myself, in order that I might better do what I ought.

I have wondered, lately, if this view of life is not too restrictive. I have justified so many things as being part of my improvement process, that I may be better educated, more knowledgeable, or more skilled, in order that I might, in turn, be well-equipped to do what I was meant to do.

It is a strange balance that cannot be quantified. I attended school because it equipped me to do something useful. I watch movies not only because I enjoy them, but because they inspire me, and contribute to my greater understanding and creativity, which I hope to use for good. I do not know how much school is best, or how many movies I ought to watch.

Christians should not feel universal pressure to become missionaries or employees at homeless shelters, fearing that their lives will otherwise be meaningless or impractical. Rather, they should consider how the skills and experiences–the ones that they are best designed for–might be used for the greater good. They should even consider thinking ahead about these things.

When is it no longer profitable to improve oneself? It is of no practical use to master a skill if you run out of time to use it, and you are of no practical use if you are not skilled at anything. I continue to wonder if I should reduce my efforts at self-improvement, and spend more time volunteering myself as I am, and my abilities as they are.

I continue to wonder if this is too narrow a view to have in mind at all times, and if it does not leave enough room for simple enjoyment. I wonder if both these things can’t be accomplished at once, in that all our actions are ultimately meaningful, and the opportunities for small acts of grace–as I will soon write about–are greater than I have been willing to notice.