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.

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.