Welcome to An Examined Life. Occassionally I delude myself into thinking that I understand some part of my life (or life in general) and I thought it might be a hoot to share those thoughts with whomever happens to stumble across this. I hope you find something enjoyable here. If I'm really lucky, I'll make you stop and think for a moment.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

What I Don’t Understand About God (Part 4)

Not long ago I discovered that one of my Facebook friends – a former student named Sean – had actually replied to a couple of my earlier posts on this topic. The last time that anyone commented on one of my posts was back in 2012, so I’d gotten out of the habit of looking for comments. So, first off, an apology to Sean for taking so long to respond.

Sean’s response was one of the most thoughtful, thought-provoking responses that I’ve ever received on these issues (but that’s typical of him). He recommended a book on the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas that will be, as of my next Amazon order, added to the Monster (There’s a time-eating monster in my basement composed of books that I want to read. It’s growing at an alarming rate.)

One of Sean’s assumptions (which he clearly labeled as such, thank you) was that God is all-good and perfect. From there he proceeds to the idea that when God created Adam and Eve, the only way that they could be different from God (who is all-good and perfect) is if they were in some way defective. I have a problem with that. It says that Adam and Eve were doomed from the start. No matter how well-intentioned they might have been, no matter how obedient they tried to be, they were going to fail. Taking them to task over that failure seems unfair to me.

I am something of a maker myself. Among other things, I have built model locomotives and written a few computer programs. More often than I would like (but less often as I’ve developed my skills), I don’t get things quite right: the drive train in the locomotive isn’t lined up just right and the locomotive doesn’t perform as desired or the code isn’t quite right and the program does some unexpected (usually undesirable) thing. The responsibility for those failures doesn’t belong to the locomotive or to the program. They’re simply performing as I built them. As their maker, I am responsible for their flaws. I can either go back in and try to correct them or I can learn to live with them. God’s response to Adam and Eve’s flaw – to hold them and all of their descendents responsible and punish them all (Genesis 3:16-19) – seems really unjust to me.

All of this led me to reread the story of the creation of humanity. My understanding of the story before now was that God created Adam and Eve. They lived in Eden – a paradise – where they could do pretty much whatever they wanted except to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They disobeyed that one commandment and as a result were driven from paradise into a world of sorrow, pain, and reality TV.

Rereading the story was an interesting experience.

So, God created Adam and plunked him down in Eden as a gardener (Genesis 2:15) and tells him that he can eat whatever fruit he wants, except for the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:16). Interestingly, God appends what turns out to be a falsehood to the commandment: “for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” We find out later that not only does Adam not die right when he eats the fruit, but that he lives a good long life.

Then Adam suffers from a bit of mission creep. God now asks him to add taxonomist to his job description and he has to name all of the critters that God creates (Genesis 2:18-20). Let’s skip over the fact that this order – make a man first and then all the animals – contradicts what was said in Genesis 1 (plants and animals on days 4 and 5 and man on day 6) and just move on. Since none of the animals was a “suitable helper” for man, God created a woman (Genesis 2:21-24). Chapter 2 closes by noting that they were naked and were not ashamed (to which I respond, why should they be?). Given later material, the intent here was to show that they did not know good from evil, right from wrong.

Chapter 3 starts with the serpent speaking to Eve. The serpent asks about what fruits Adam and Eve may eat and in Genesis 3:2-3 she replies, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’” Once again that falsehood has been stated and the serpent calls it out: “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil (Genesis 3:4-5).” Twice now the author of Genesis writes that God lied about the effects of eating the fruit.

We all know what happened next. Eve took the fruit, gave some to Adam, and they ate it. Thus, they broke God’s one commandment. But, think about this carefully. Yes, they ate the fruit they were told not to eat. But, what fruit was it? The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Prior to eating it, they would not have understood that eating it was wrong even though they had been told not to; they didn’t know the difference between good and evil, between right and wrong. To illustrate the change, the author notes that they now knew they were naked and covered themselves (Genesis 3:7). So their “sin” was committing an act that – within the logic of the story – they did not and could not know was wrong. How is punishing them for that act just? Even flawed human systems of justice get that: we treat children and those with diminished mental capacity differently.

And, as I noted above, God didn’t just punish Adam and Eve (and the serpent), the ones who actually committed the “sin.” He punished all of their descendants, too (Genesis 3:16-19). I just can’t understand how that qualifies as good or just.

Now, the way I’ve usually heard the story is that Adam and Eve were driven from Eden because they broke God’s commandment. That’s not, however, what is reported in Genesis. Chapter 3 closes this way:

22 Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— 23 therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. 24 So He drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life.

So, Adam and Eve were actually driven from Eden to keep them from becoming immortal (which, incidentally, contradicts one of Sean’s claims about prelapsarian man).

I want to close with one thing I do understand. I understand Eve’s motivation. “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise [emphasis added], she took from its fruit and ate… (Genesis 3:6). She sought wisdom, she sought knowledge. I cannot fault that, the same seeking is at the root of why I do what I do. To learn, to discover, to – in John Denver’s words – “be part of the movement and part of the growing, part of beginning to understand…” What higher purpose could there be? To tell the truth, faced with the choice, I’d have eaten the bloody fruit, too.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

What I Don’t Understand about God (Part 3)

I woke up this morning from a dream in which an African-American woman was trying to bribe an African-American student to not give a speech on race at a convocation event. As I lay there thinking about that, the quiet little voice in my head popped up and said, “The challenge of faith is not to silence doubts, but to believe in the face of doubt.”

And I thought, “What an odd thing for the quiet little voice in my head to say.”

I mean, in my last two postings I’ve expressed some of my doubts, some of the things that I don’t understand about God and belief in God. I think I understand the meaning of what my quiet little voice said; it’s the same as the meaning of the Doubting Thomas story: it is a virtue simply to believe, even if there is no evidence to support the belief. So, my little voice makes sense from a believer’s point of view.

But why is believing in something that you cannot see a virtue?

I fancy myself a scientist. I work in a field that many believe is not a science. I work with things that we cannot see such as memory or mechanisms of attention. I infer the existence of those things from the behaviors that I see people perform: if short term memory has this characteristic, then people should behave this way. And then I go look: do people behave that way? It’s much like cosmologists inferring the existence of dark matter (which they can’t see – that’s why it’s called dark) from the effects it has on surrounding stuff.

I suppose we could do that with God, but that would mean applying the methods of science to the study of God. It took from the dawn of humanity until 1879 to get to the point that some people would accept applying the methods of science to the study of the human mind (and some still don’t accept it). I think it’s going to be a lot longer before people accept trying to do scientific research on God.

I’ve known quite a few believers who will insist that there is already evidence that God exists: the cancer patient who experiences total remission after praying or the believer who pulls off of the highway because of a “feeling” right before a major accident. These are examples of good things happening to good people and that’s what we’d expect a God (at least a just God) to do for His people. But what about when bad things happen to good people: when an aspiring young mathematician dies in a senseless accident or a woman on her way to church is hit by a car, seriously injuring her back? Twice? Or how about when good things happen to bad people, as when a pedophile lives a long and prosperous life?

I know enough to know that you haven’t made a strong case for the existence of God by looking only at the positive examples. It’s great when a cancer patient prays and then recovers, but what about all the cancer patients who pray and then don’t recover? The answer, “Well sometimes when we pray, the answer is no.” really isn’t very satisfying. Why? Why do some live and some die? And – I’m sorry – but the answer “God works in mysterious ways” is just a religious way of saying “sh*t happens.”

So, how do we know that God’s really out there? I honestly don’t know. That’s why I call myself an agnostic.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What I Don’t Understand about God (Part 2)

Among all of the other things that I do not understand about God is this: I do not understand what God is like.

I’m pretty sure that one of the things that God is supposed to be is good. One of my uncertainties is exactly how we know that God is good. My thought was this (and I remember hearing this somewhere a long time ago and thinking that it made sense to me, so I can’t claim any originality here): we claim that God is good, but supposedly God Himself defines what is good. If that’s true, then what is good is an arbitrary choice by God. Today, God might decide that genocide is not good and it would not be good. It might even be a sin. Tomorrow, though, God might decide that a little genocide is just fine. That isn’t, I think, what most of us mean by good. Good was good in the past, it’s good today, and will still be good tomorrow.

It seems to me that in order for us to say that God is good, good must exist apart from God, so that we can hold up good and see what it looks like and then hold up God and see what He (or She or It) looks like. If they look the same, well, then, God is good. If not…

And you might be thinking, but God is good and is the very definition of good. God would never do something like decide that “a little genocide is just fine.” As I recall, though, God on more than one occasion allowed, condoned, or ordered genocide. See, for just a few examples, Exodus 17:13, Numbers 21:3, Deuteronomy 2:33-34, and Deuteronomy 3:6.

It was at about this point that I was starting to feel confused and like I was missing something or possibly misrepresenting something. So, I Googled “Is God good?”

I’m going to ignore the author’s misrepresentation of Darwin and focus on my question. The site’s author simply asserts that God is good and that there is no conception of good without God. The author states, “Again, from where do you get your definition of ‘good’? Only the Bible provides an absolute moral standard by which we can measure what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad.’”
Well, as I noted above, that means that genocide is bad – or good – depending on the mood God’s in. I’m not sure that works for me.

So, I checked out this YouTube video: http://www.everystudent.com/videos/isGodgood.html

Right on its opening screen it promised to answer my question.

But, it didn’t. The narrator asked the question, then discussed the notion of human freedom of choice, and then simply asserted that God is good.

So, no help from a quick Google search. The video, however, did touch on another area in which I lack understanding. The narrator pointed out that God is omnipotent, that God can do anything that’s logically possible (thus, no square circles). She then pointed out that God created people. When He did so, though, He didn’t want robots. He wanted real people and that meant giving them freedom. According to the author, humans have used their freedom to make bad choices.

I’ve heard sermons in a number of churches over the years and listened to a number of Christians discuss this issue and all of them seemed to agree on this next point: humans are sinners and cannot help but be sinners. No matter how well-intentioned a person is, no matter how strong that person’s convictions might be, no matter how devoutly that person believes, that person cannot help but to sin.

And, for me, that’s the rub. If God is truly omnipotent, could He not create beings with the freedom to choose and the strength of will to live up to that choice?

I could go on, but I think I’ve maybe made my point. I have no idea what God’s like and many of the answers I get to that question give a picture of a God (like the nasty feudal king of a God described in the first Web site I talked about) that I could simply never follow.

Friday, January 23, 2015

What I Don’t Understand about God (Part 1)

My Mom and Dad split up when I was young, so I don’t have many memories of doing things with my Dad when I was growing up. One thing I do remember is this. Back in the spring of 1965, I was six years old and just finishing first grade. We had moved to Northern Virginia at Christmas and I was still getting used to the area. One thing that was different was that I had to ride a bus to and from school. Before the move I had walked to school. This was a long time ago and I was young, so a lot of the details are fuzzy, but apparently I wanted to walk home from school. I’d been paying attention on the bus ride, so I knew the route.

Then I got my chance. One day my teacher was sick and we had a substitute who didn’t know who was a walker and who was not. So, when the office secretary came on the intercom to announce that the walkers could leave, I left. It was a bit over 2 miles from the school to my house (2.19 according to MapQuest) along some fairly busy roads with no sidewalks. I was young. It never occurred to me that it would take me longer to walk home than it did to ride the bus.

When I didn’t get off the bus, my parents were understandably upset. I’m not sure what they did, but they found me as I was climbing the hill to our house. I’m not sure what happened when I first got home, but I do remember ending up in a bedroom with my Dad, scared and expecting to be spanked.
But I wasn’t spanked. I remember my Dad took off his belt, folded it in half, and then he held the ends together in one hand and the midpoint in the other hand. When he pushed his hands together and then snapped them apart, his belt made a slapping sound. He did that a couple of times. I think he asked me to scream when he did it.

I don’t remember what he said to me that afternoon, but I never tried something like that again.

Did my Dad have a reason to punish me? Yes. This wasn’t my first transgression involving getting home from school (I’d been caught taking a forbidden shortcut before we moved). You could even say that he had an obligation to punish me. I’m sure some who read this might fault him for sparing the rod and spoiling me. I will say this, though. What he did worked. I never did that again and I knew that I was loved. And, ultimately, I think I turned out ok.

So, what is it that I don’t understand? In an earlier post, I said that I had been raised Roman Catholic, but ended up agnostic. There were simply too many things that Catholics believe that I did not for me to call myself a Catholic. Eventually, I realized that I had the same problem with Christianity in general. There are some aspects of Christianity that I just do not understand.

Recently, I’ve been talking about God and religion with a friend. I even attended the Christmas Eve service at her church. I ended up having a really good night’s sleep that night and a very peaceful Christmas Day. By peaceful I don’t mean quiet – I’m often home alone, so it’s often peaceful that way here. I’m talking an emotional peace of a kind that I’ve rarely experienced since Jonathan’s loss.
And that has me once again reexamining my beliefs. Ok, so what’s that got to do with my Dad not hitting me when I was a kid? Well, one of the things that I don’t understand is the very basis of Christianity: the notion that Jesus died to atone for humanity’s sins, so that those sins might be forgiven.

As I understand it, it goes something like this: God made The Rules, declaring that certain acts are sins and a whole bunch of other acts are not sins (another thing I don’t understand is why an omnipotent God couldn’t make creatures capable of following The Rules, but I digress). If you sin and do not atone for that sin, when you die you will die forever or go to hell forever or some other such nasty fate. To prevent that from happening, God in His mercy sent Jesus to die for all humans, so that we wouldn’t have to die to for our sins. All we have to do is accept Jesus as our savior and ask forgiveness.

But why did anyone have to die?

I mean, He’s God, right? He made The Rules. If He wants to forgive a human’s sins, can’t he just do that without the bloodshed? Can’t He just say, “If you accept Me as God in your heart and ask Me for forgiveness, then I’ll forgive you.”

My Dad figured out that he didn’t have to hurt me to keep me from “sinning.” You’d think a God could do that, too.