By Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.
Excerpts from The Demon in the Freezer written by Richard Preston.
I feel like I’m hiding from responsibility. Or, more specifically, my calling. I feel stuck. Stymied. Like a deer caught in the frickin’ headlights. The more of nothing I do, the less I feel like there’s anything I can do. This hit me hard last evening while reading a chapter in Richard Preston’s book The Demon in the Freezer. Preston also wrote the best-selling book The Hot Zone, which was recently a featured mini-series on National Geographic starring Juilanna Margulies.
The Demon in the Freezer is Preston’s true account of the inside story on virus outbreaks and the history of biological weapons. [You can order a copy of the book at Amazon.com] In the chapter called “Strange Trip,” he takes us on a wild ride that begins with Dr. Lawrence Brilliant (his real name) and Wavy Gravy, who met at Woodstock, and ends with participation in the Eradication Program for smallpox started by the World Health Organization in New Delhi. As I read this chapter, I saw strange but convincing parallels to my own life. Like Dr. Brilliant did initially, I have been postponing the fulfillment of God’s call on my life. Not unlike Dr. Brilliant and Wavy Gravy, much of this hindrance has been fueled by chronic drug and alcohol use that became what the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) calls Substance Use Disorder (SUD).
I will provide a complete account of “Strange Trip” in this blog article, and will jump in here and there to describe how this tale mimics my sloth-like approach to life and to my mission. I’ll comment on the terrible danger of allowing your journey to be interrupted; explaining what it’s like to tune God out and concentrate on assuaging emotional and physical pain as if my life depended on it. I don’t intend to go easy on myself. This is an important story that will hopefully inspire someone else to get off their rump and begin the trip that God has laid out before them. Failure to do so will haunt you. A Christian friend of mine recently told me, “God wants you to know that if you don’t do what He has called you to do, He will get someone else to do it!”
LET’S GET STARTED
There is no other way to do life but to do it the right way.
IN THE SUMMER OF 1970, a twenty-six-year-old medical doctor named Lawrence Brilliant finished his internship at Presbyterian Hospital in San Francisco. He had been diagnosed with a tumor of the parathyroid gland and was recovering from an operation, so he was not able to go on with this residency. He was living on Alcatraz Island in San Fransisco Bay, where he was giving medical help to a group of Native Americans who had occupied Alcatraz in a protest. He ended up doing some interviews on television from the island, and a producer from Warner Bros. saw one of them and offered him a role in a movie. The movie was Medicine Ball Caravan, about hippies who go to England and end up at a Pink Floyd concert. Larry Brilliant played a doctor… The movie also featured Wavy Gravy, one of the founders of the Hog Farm commune in Llano, New Mexico. The Hog Farm commune had recently become famous for running the food kitchen at the Woodstock festival, where they also provivded security…
Medicine Ball Caravan was shot first in San Francisco and then in England, and during the shooting Brilliant and Gravy became friends… In England, Brilliant and his wife, Girija, and Wavy and his wife, Jahanara Gravy—she’s from Minnesota and is said to have been Bob Dylan’s girlfriend and perhaps even the model for the “Girl of the North Country”—pondered what to do next in life. A terrible cyclone had hit the delta of the Ganges River in the Bay of Bengal, in what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and the eye of the cyclone had passed over an island named Bhota. A hundred and fifty thousand people had drowned when a tidal surge had covered the entire island. The Brilliants and the Gravys hit on the idea of buying a bus and carrying food and medicines to the devastated islanders.
“Wavy and I and our wives—who, remarkably, are still our wives—drove to Kathmandu,” Brilliant said. They started with a rotten old British Leyland bus that they bought cheap in London. They painted it in psychedelic colors and filled the bus with medicine and food and a bunch of hippie friends. They bought a second bus in Germany and equipped it similarly, and the Brilliant-Gravy bus entourage made its way slowly through Turkey and Iran. The buses wandered around Afghanistan for months, and they made it over the Khyber Pass, following the same road that Peter Los and his friends had driven a little more than a year earlier in their Volkswagen bus.
The Brilliant-Gravy expedition wound slowly through Pakistan and crossed into India. Civil war had broken out between East and West Pakistan—this was the independence war of Bangladesh—and the border of Bangladesh had been closed, so they couldn’t get their buses into the country. They turned northward into Nepal, and eventually the buses pulled into Kathmandu. “Wavy got sick and ended up going back to the U.S. weighing about eighty pounds,” Brilliant says. The Brilliants abandoned their bus in Kathmandu and went to New Delhi, India. It seems that the Brilliants were pondering what to do next in life, and nothing was coming along.
Like the Brilliants, many of us tend to get derailed from our plans by difficulties and choose indecision. For me, I’ve had plans to serve the LORD in some capacity at numerous times during my life. I remember telling my grandmother many decades ago that every time I ignore God’s call on my life I end up failing miserably at whatever I decide to do instead. Invariably, that has always led to rather troublesome developments. It’s as if God pulled back on His blessings and waited for me to return to Him ready to serve. Dr. Brilliant and his wife stumbled around India for some time not sure what to do. One day they were in an American Express office in New Delhi collecting their mail, when they met Baba Ram Dass. Baba had recently been Professor Richard Alpert of Harvard University, but he and a colleague, Professor Timothy Leary, had been kicked out of Harvard for advocating the use of LSD.
Richard Preston’s book continues.
Baba Ram Dass spoke glowingly of a holy man named Neem Karoli Baba, who was the head of an ashram at the foot of the Himalayas in a remote district in northern India where the borders of China, India, and Nepal come together. Girija Brilliant was captivated by Baba Ram Dass’s talk of the holy man, and she wanted to meet him, though Larry was not interested. Girija insisted, and so they went. They ended up living in the ashram and becoming devotees of Neem Karoli Baba… He was a famous guru in India, and the people sometimes called him Blanket Baba. The Brilliants learned Hindi, meditated, and read the Bhagavad Gita. Meanwhile, Larry ran an informal clinic in the ashram, giving out medicines that he’d taken off the bus when they’d left it in Kathmandu. One day, he was outdoors at the ashram, singing Sanskrit songs with a group of students, watching them sing. He fixed his eye on Brilliant.
Preston reports that the guru wanted to know how much money Brilliant had. When Brilliant told him he had five-hundred dollars, Blanket Baba asked how much money Brilliant had back home in America. The answer was the same—five hundred dollars. The conversation got quite interesting at this point.
Blanket Baba got a sly grin and started chanting, in Hindi, “You have no money… you are no doctor… you have no money,” and he reached forward and tugged on Brilliant’s beard. Brilliant didn’t know how to answer. Neem Karoli Baba switched to English and kept on chanting. “You are no doctor… UNO doctor… UNO doctor.” UNO can stand for United Nations Organization.
The guru was saying to his student (or so the student now thinks) that his duty and destiny—his dharma—was to become a doctor with the United Nations. “He made this funny gesture, looking up at the sky,” Brilliant recalled, “and he said in Hindi, ‘You are going to go into villages. You are going to eradicate smallpox. Because this is a terrible disease. But with God’s grace, smallpox will be unmulum.'” The guru used a formal old Sanskrit word that means “to be torn up by the roots.” Eradicated. The word “unmulum” comes from an Indo-European root that is at least ten thousand years old—the word is probably older than smallpox.
“So I said, ‘What do I do?’ And he said, ‘Go to New Delhi. Go to the office of the World Health Organization. Go get your job. Jao, jao, jao.’ That means, ‘Go, go go.'” Brilliant packed a few things and left the ashram that night—the guru seemed to be in a rush to “unmulate” smallpox. The trip to New Delhi took seventeen hours by rickshaw and bus. When Brilliant walked into the office of the WHO, it was nearly empty. It had just been set up, and almost no one was working there. The government of India was then headed by Indira Gandhi, and she was skeptical of the Eradication Program and had not yet approved it. The first person Brilliant met was the head of the office, Dr. Nicole Grasset.
“I was wearing a white dress and sandals,” Brilliant says, “I’m five feet nine, and my beard was something like five feet eleven, and my hair was in a ponytail down my back.” Grasset had no job to offer him, so Brilliant returned to the monastery and, having not slept in at least thirty-six hours, reported back to the guru. “Did you get your job?” “No.” “Go back and get it.”
A PERSONAL MISSION
The guru was convinced Brilliant would get his job eradicating smallpox. It was, after all, his dharma—his “calling.” Brilliant returned to New Delhi. Dr. Grasset was quite shocked to see him again, but nothing had changed. There was no job. Brilliant went back and forth between New Delhi and the ashram at least a dozen times. I’m not sure if this indicated Brilliant was like a dog with a bone, determined to get his job, or that God had called him to this task, which would ultimately materialize. Each time he returned, the guru would say, “Don’t worry, you’ll get your job. Smallpox will be unmulum, uprooted.” Brilliant returned to the WHO in New Delhi.
“On one of my trips, there was this tall guy sitting in the lobby of the WHO office. He looked up and said, ‘Who are you? What are you doing here?'” “I’ve come to work for the smallpox program,” Brilliant replied. “There isn’t much of a program here.” “My guru says it will be eradicated. Who are you?” “I’m D.A. Henderson. I’m the head of the program.”
Henderson, for his part, was a little put off by Brilliant’s white dress and his talk of a guru predicting a wipeout of smallpox. That day, Henderson wrote a note in the employment record, “Nice guy, sincere. Appears to have gone a little native…” Indira Gandhi was herself a devotee of Neem Karoli Baba, and she had visited him at the monastery, where she had bowed down to him and touched his feet and asked for his advice. Blanket Baba wanted smallpox pulled up by the roots, and he was annoyed at Mrs. Gandhi for resisting the efforts of the World Health Organization to get on with the job…
Brilliant thought he’d increase his chances of getting a job if he looked more Western, so every time he returned to New Delhi he trimmed off some of his beard and shortened his ponytail, and he began to replace articles of clothing. He ended up with medium-long hair and a short beard, and he was dressed in a checkered polyester suit with extra-wide lapels, a thick polyester tie, and a lime green Dacron shirt. He had made himself unnoticeable, for the seventies. By that time, Nicole Grasset had decided to hire him, and D.A. Henderson agreed that he might have some potential as an eradicator. He started as a typist.
At this point, it is obvious Brilliant was determined to get the job he’d been called to do. He remained obstinate and did not take no for an answer. Moreover, he made the necessary changes to accomplish his goal, especially his outward appearance that was distracting people from seeing him for who he truly was: a man destined to help eradicate smallpox from the world. Interestingly, as we’ll see later, the simple decision to learn to speak Hindi allowed Brilliant to get through to the native Hindi people to get vaccinated. Had he known only English, or had to speak through an interpreter, I don’t believe he would have been as well received. Fulfilling our calling often revolves around similar commitments and changes.
I’m sure most of us can see ourselves in the example of Dr. Brilliant. When we feel compelled—indeed, called—to do something, we invariably go through stages of action and inaction, assurance and doubt, but if we believe in the call on our life we will remain tenacious. Unfortunately, on many occasions the devil throws every possible obstacle in our path to stop us from answering that call. For me, it was a number of things, ranging from materialism to pride, but the toughest hurdle has been my struggle with active addiction. In fact, the longest time I have remained at a job in my life was three years. I have a friend who’s had two jobs since high school, and both are in the same industry! Moreover, I have finally completed the first step in answering God’s call: I’ve obtained my B.S. in Psychology at age 59, and I am starting my Master’s in Theology in August.
Preston’s chapter continues.
Eventually, they sent Brilliant to a nearby district to handle smallpox outbreaks, where if he got into trouble they could pull him out quickly. He saw his first cases of variola major. “You can’t see smallpox and not be impressed,” he said. He began to organize vaccination campaigns in villages. He would go into a village where there was smallpox, rent an elephant, and ride through the village telling people in Hindi that they should get vaccinated. People didn’t want to be vaccinated. They felt that smallpox was an emanation of the goddess of smallpox, Shitala Ma, and that therefore the disease was part of the sacred order of the world; it was the dharma of the people to have visitations from the disease.
Brilliant traveled all over India with Henderson and the other leaders of the Eradication, and they came to know one another intimately. “D.A. read nothing but war novels and books about Patton and other great generals in history,” Brilliant said. “Nicole Grasset read nothing except scientific things. Bill Foege was reading philosophy and Christian literature—he’s a devout Lutheran. I was reading mystical literature.” They ran a fleet of five hundred jeeps. They had a hundred and fifty thousand people working for the program, mostly on very small salaries. For a year and a half, at the peak of the campaign, every house in India was called on once a month by a health worker to see if anyone there had smallpox. There were a hundred and twenty million houses in India, and Brilliant estimates that the program made almost two billion house calls during that year and a half.
After he helped eradicate smallpox—his “calling”—Larry Brilliant did other things. He became one of Jerry Garcia’s physicians. He became the founder and co-owner of the Well, a famous early Internet operation. He was the CEO of SoftNet, a software company that reached three billion dollars in value on the stock market during the wild years of the Internet. He and his wife had three children. He eventually obtained the position of professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, and, along with Wavy Gravy and Baba Ram Dass, he established a medical foundation called the Seva Foundation. Today, that operation has cured two million people of blindness in India and Nepal.
“I’ve done a lot of things in life,” Brilliant said, “but I’ve never encountered people as smart, as dedicated, as hardworking, as kind, or as noble as the people who worked on smallpox. Everything about them—D.A. Henderson, Nicole Grasset, Zdenek Jezek, Steve Jones, Bill Foege, Isao Arita, the other leaders—everything about them as people was secondary to the work of eradicating smallpox. We hated smallpox.”
There were numerous setbacks during the World Health Organization’s campaign to eradicate smallpox. In fact, there were two false conclusions that the virus had been wiped out. Each time, the eradicators implemented known procedures, creating vaccination “rings” around the outbreaks. On October 27, 1977, a hospital cook in Somalia named Ali Maow Maalin broke out with the world’s final natural case of variola. They vaccinated fifty-seven thousand people around him, and the final ring tightened, and the life cycle of the smallpox virus stopped.
God calls upon believers and non-believers alike to do His work. Although I am a theist of Christian belief, I take nothing away from the actions and the determination of Baba Ram Dass and Neem Karoli Baba. It is important to note, for the record, that I believe such brave and dedicated non-believers have not earned their salvation in spite of their paramount accomplishments. Salvation comes from Christ alone through faith in Christ alone. I can only hope individuals such as these brave warriors against smallpox come to know the truth during their mortal lifetime and make a conscious decision to accept the saving grace of God through the shedding of the blood of Jesus on the cross.
I will say, however, that these people we’ve read about today convicted me to stop making excuses for my long periods of inactivity, disobedience, and selfishness. I am sure the conviction I felt when reading the chapter “Strange Trip” in Preston’s book, and, moreover, while writing this blog post, came from the Holy Spirit. It is, after all, through the worldview I hold as a Christian that I receive and believe in such guidance and conviction. It is my responsibility to listen to that small voice and take steps to stop the practice of habitual sin. To cease walking in and serving the flesh and begin to walk in the Spirit of God.
Only by coming to grips with our humanity—our total lack of inability to conquer the flesh and discontinue all sinning—can we hope to stop the practice of sin. Furthermore, the flesh and its myriad distractions will drown out the voice of God. We will fail to hear Him tell us who we are in His Son, Christ Jesus. We will miss the calling on our lives. How will we know if our failure to step up and listen to God’s plans for us will result in, for example, the deaths of millions of people because we did not become the “eradicator” He needs us to be. To wipe out whatever we’re called to wipe out, whether it be smallpox, addiction, human trafficking, terrorism, violence, or mental illness?
We don’t know unless we surrender and start listening to God.
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition.
Preston, R. (2002). The Demon in the Freezer: A True Story. New York, NY: Random House.
9 Replies to “What It Feels Like to do Nothing”
Given your reply to my question regarding why you no longer believe the biblical account of origins, God, and doctrine, I believe it’s best that I provide a quick discourse on “why I am a Christian.” This follows a pattern presented in a recent debate I watched on YouTube between a Christian and an atheist: The question being considered in the debate was, “Why I am or am not a Christian.” Granted, this is a matter of personal worldview. My response will ultimately have to include point-by-point assertions regarding the science of why creationism is true.
From a very young age, I was unable to control my impulsive behavior or hold a proper sense of morality. The more I defied my father, the more likely his punishment (which was almost exclusively corporal or physical in nature). I quickly learned to fear my father and regret when he came home after work. I am sure this played a part in my tendency to present a “mask” or to hide out in my room or in a book I was reading. My lack of control seemed to be pervasive. Dad had no solution. No instruction. No advice. He only knew to punish my overt behavior without understanding the covert (hidden) reason for it. We grew apart. Unfortunately, my tendency to hide my motives and behavior led to a lifelong habit of persistent lying and deception and, finally, escape through substance abuse.
I recall having a sense of control and clarity when my family began attending church. We went quite regularly to an evangelical (Bible-based) independent church. My behavior seemed to improve. I had some sense of control, and my self-image grew more positive. I accepted Christ and received water baptism at age 13. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter my father became disillusioned with the church. He said the pastor and elders were demanding more of his money and time, and that the church was full of hypocrites. We quit church “cold turkey.” Within a short time, my behavior became even more disrespectful and rebellious. As you know from my personal story, this led me down a path of addiction and criminal behavior that cost me dearly and ultimately took decades to overcome.
Having grown tired of continually disappointing myself, my family, and God, I sought spiritual guidance. This eventually led to my return to the church where I “got saved” as they say. Because I remained double-minded, progress was rather slow. The short of it is today, having truly “surrendered” (a term you seem to see as negative and self-defeating), I am at peace with my past, have a clear understanding of God’s “call” on my life, and am much better equipped to handle obsessive/compulsive behavior, temptation, cravings for release through drugs, alcohol and pornography, and no longer feel the soul-crushing sense of shame and worthlessness. Today, when I am tempted to watch “smut” or take a drug, I am finally able to say “No!” In addition, I can see the worth of all my failings (and the value of all my successes) as grist for the mill. In other words, as a Christian in recovery said to me several years ago, “God wants you to know that everything you’ve gone through from the moment of your birth until this day was ordained by Him to help make you into the man He intended you to be.”
My decision to study psychology at the undergraduate level and theology at the graduate level is grounded in my desire (indeed, my “purpose”) to approach life, love, temptation, mental illness, and addiction from a combined perspective of mind and spirit. I have come to agree with the basic tenet of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous that addiction is a spiritual malady. Accordingly, I believe no human power could have relieved me of my active addiction. Not me. Not any other human being. It was only through acceptance of my malady and my innate sin nature that I could hope to recover. Once I knew this, I had to then become willing to turn my will and my life over to Christ. I had to take a thorough, honest, and courageous look at the true nature of man and of my many character defects and become willing for God to remove these debilitating tendencies and begin walking in a newness. Moreover, I had to stop blaming my father (or anyone else) for where I ended up. I could only find release through Jesus. In other words, I believe I have become a new “creation” in Christ. Of course, you have been educated in the doctrine of Christianity and know this is what Scripture teaches.
Now that I’ve expressed my reason for believing in God (capital G), Christ, and the Holy Spirit, I feel I can respond to your recent reply relative to my initial post of July 31st. Perhaps this will permit my blog post about what it feels like to not follow one’s calling—to sit back and refuse to do that which I’m called to do—to make more sense to you and to those who might be following our conversation. My strength, courage, love, and kindness come from God. In my “natural” state, I have nearly always been angry, vindictive, manipulative, self-centered, calculating, and, well, evil. Billy Joel’s “Stranger” spoke to me. I truly had two faces: my public persona and the “real” me in need of healing. I understood who I was in life but came to see who I could be through Christ. It’s really that simple for me. In other words, I believe what I believe because of the changes that have occurred and an understanding as to the source of those life-giving changes. Yes, this is a matter of faith. No, I cannot prove to you that God exists. At least not if you require scientific proof as science is defined. But I also understand the difference between observable (experimental) science and historical science. I can, however, point to both “general revelation” (the physical world) and “special knowledge” (God’s written Word) as proof of God’s existence.
You spoke of acceptable metaphor expressed in the Bible, but you dispute its literal claims: e.g., Christ was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, and then died (in a manner accurately predicted in such detail as to be more than coincidence or calculated pageantry based on the old texts), was buried, and resurrected on the third day as the ultimate (and only efficacious) blood sacrifice for sin: yours, mine, everyone’s; that God created matter, time, space, and all that we see. From the beginning, mankind has been unable to “cover” his own sins (see Genesis 3). Our righteousness is like filthy rags. Adam and Eve attempted to cover their shame (indeed, their sin) with fig leaves, which was inadequate to say the least. It took the killing of an innocent animal—and the shedding of blood—to provide an adequate “cover,” In other words, there is no redemption without the shedding of blood. But you know of this doctrine. You’ve chosen to not believe it.
You say you no longer believe because of all you’ve been through, witnessed regarding our society, and studied; this caused you turned away from faith in God. Interestingly, it is because of my personal experiences (failure and success), the books I’ve read, the exegetical studies I’ve undertaken, and the truth about man’s constant struggles, that I believe the Gospel to be 100% true. We are both seeing the same history of events and have both been both victor and victim throughout our lives, as has every human who has ever walked the earth. In the same manner, scientists who are Christian and atheist have the same set of facts before them. They just choose to see them differently. This is the very definition of worldview.
It is your contention that we (you, me, mankind) are who we are (despite our weaknesses) because we “desire to be good.” We don’t need the threat of an eternity of fiery hell and damnation in order to be loving, caring, empathic, kind, or whatever quality you choose to list. I cannot see this to be true. I believe in the fallen (sin) nature of mankind. I believe nothing in Creation is as God intended it to be. I have personally found “inner strength” to be sorely lacking. For whatever reason(s), in the “flesh” I tend to be less than these attributes you believe are innate in man. Moreover, what of the frightening behavior of those who suffer at the hands of evil tendencies to rape, kill, burn, steal, manipulate, or otherwise dominate their fellow man? What of serial murderers, despotic madmen? I agree that a great deal can be said of mental illness, and psychiatry has made tremendous strides in treating (controlling) or in some cases eradicating (curing) mental illness. The DSM-5 is quite descriptive of the myriad mental illness and obsessive behaviors that plague some of us, including me for many decades.
You will say this is the true source of much of our “sinful” acts as humans. Sure, but it is my contention that these various maladies are further proof of our sinful and fallen nature. In other words, I too “… scrape[d] and scrabble[d]…” but I was unable to achieve a change in my underlying difficulties and resultant behavior through reliance on any combination of inner strength. I disagree that God is a mythological deity. Further, I don’t believe that God stands between me and the good of other human beings. This is the “ministry” of Satan. Even he knows Scripture and is well-aware of the truth. His plan is to destroy as much of God’s Creation as possible before he himself is thrown into the fiery pit of eternal fire and damnation. In other words, despite his understanding about how this all will turn out in the end, misery loves company.
I was going to continue this response by examination of various claims from Christian scientists and apologists, citing numerous current findings regarding the “new” Darwinism and the recent scientific findings that cast serious doubt on Darwin and the concept of “something from nothing” without a creative source (no watch without a watchmaker!), but this would be ill-advised as it would test the patience and attention-span of others following our discussion. I will instead prepare either a separate response (a supplement) to this or I will prepare and publish a new post in which I continue this exercise, with a link in the text to our original conversation.
Thank you, my friend, for your kind and thoughtful reply to the original post and my subsequent response to your ongoing comments. I pray two things: that you one day see (anew) the absolute truth of the Gospel, and (2) that those who read this string of comments between us who might be doubting, or are confused, would come to the decision that Jesus Christ died that all might come to the Father and be able to spend eternity in the Kingdom of God. And to those who are reading this that might be struggling with mental illness or addiction, there is absolutely no shame in admitting your inner weakness and seeking help. Never let your religious beliefs (or lack of them) keep you from beginning your journey to better mental health with a secular therapist or a 12-step program. Victory must begin however you can achieve it, but it must begin or nothing will change.
Obviously, I meant “stars,” not starts. Sigh, again, forgive the typos, please. 🙂
As an aside here, let me point out that I saw a one minute video (the comments were disabled for a reason) that completely misrepresented what Dawkins was saying in his Blind Watchmaker book. That concept, the concept of the watchmaker, was a Christian one. Dawkins was talking about how life constantly adapting and evolving over a very, very, very long period of time was what made things all work together so well in the world (because they had to in order to survive) gives the illusion of a creator. I suggest that if you do not at least read the book itself, you could read an unbiased summary. Here’s a link to a good review of its anniversary edition from nine years back: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/apr/30/richard-dawkins-blind-watchmaker.
The reviewer also comments that Dawkins was quite kind and gracious in the writing. I realize even Niel deGrasse Tyson thinks Dawkins has become too harsh, I can see why it happened. He, like Hitchens (arrogant ass that he could be sometimes) was concerned about how many people have been abused and controlled by the church. And after so many people swear and mock you on YouTube, after a while, I suppose you get a hard exterior.
We could debate which one of us is really missing the point. I was talking about the beginning of the universe as we know it, not the appearance of matter out of nothingness. Just saying, “The universe exists” is not proof that someone created it. I would say the same is true of the existence of life. Do we simply say, “Hey, here is a thing we do not understand, so that is obviously incontravertable proof that there is a god or gods”? Science is about asking questions, making hypotheses and either confirming or ruling them based on the evidence that we find. Sometimes the evidence contradicts our earlier understandings, so we upgrade our understanding as we discover. That’s the exciting thing about science. There is no end to discovery. We never know it all.
Not so with fundementalist Christianity, right? Well, for the most part. There are things that need to be updated eventually. The church finally had to admit (except for the minority opinion of flat earthers, I suppose) that the earth is not the center of the universe.
And I’m glad you do not take the young-earth view. My own church upbringing included pastors who seemed to begrudgingly admit at least that there must be some vast number of years passing between verse one and verse two of the Bible. But even that is not quite enough honesty. We just don’t want to look at metaphor and myth and imagine that maybe there are spiritual truths to learn about humankind in the book without having to hold to every statement as a fact.
Within the text of the Genesis creation story itself, there is so much that tells us not to take it literally. For instance, on “day one” God creates light, divides night from day, yet he doesn’t create the firmament (sky, or a literalist would say “Heaven” perhaps) until day two? We know that’s not how it works. I can hear a fundementalist somewhere screaming, “But maybe it was true that first time!” Okay, so then he makes dry land on day three. Okay, that sounds sciency. But why the hell did he not create starts in the firmament until day four? Wait, what? And it that’s when he created the moon and sun too. Whatever it was that was lighting up creation back on day one, we may never know!
Steve, I’m getting all of this from the text itself. King James version of Genesis with Strong’s Concordance footnotes. I did not read this is a Dawkins book or some evil place that sought to steal my salvation. Steve, I had these puzzling questions as a child. It was the church itself and my desire to believe in its God, a desire to be and do good inside me, that allowed me to put away those very good questions, in hopes that it would “all make sense one day.” Talking to my own father about such questions at a young age was a trip, now that I think about it. “It means what it says, son.” But dad, what about? “Don’t be silly, young man, of course it doesn’t mean *that*.”
So why do we have a creation story that doesn’t match what we actually are able to observe in the world around us? Easy, it’s because the writers did not know. These were stories passed down through generations, and if we choose to hold onto some truth about them today, it can only be as an analogous story, a beautiful mythology, the point of which is simply, God created all of this. Okay, sure. Nice story, but you can’t claim any of it as scientific proof of anything. You just can’t. You might as well say that we walk on air and the ground under our feet is just an illusion. The creation story contradicts reality, so we have to let it be an allegory.
So why can’t Christians do the same thing with other tales in the old book as evidence refutes them? Because fundamentalists have held onto this idea that they *know*, and that their faith in the unseen somehow superseeds what their eyes see, and so out of fear of their knowledge making their whole worldview collapse around them, they hold onto their inaccuracies long after they should have just shrugged and said, “Well, I guess we weren’t supposed to take that literally either.”
But back to that nothing from nothing bit. Where else do we see evidence of this? Babies? Well, maybe our forefathers thought so, but someone eventually figured out what made it happen, and even before the understanding of sperm and egg cells, we had to admit that babies came from *something*. Rain doesn’t come from nothing. It’s moisture in the clouds that eveparated up there. Sure, there was a time when people didn’t understand that and figured that lightning bolts were angry weapons thrown by sky gods. Again, we don’t understand it so there must be some magic that makes it happen. But nothing, nothing in the world is like that. Paintings are created by painters, but from ink and brushes. Sculptors use stone and tools. We have exactly zero examples of something coming from nothing in the world, so why do we expect that when it comes to the beginning of the universe it would be any different?
As a child I asked questions, mostly in my head, because adults couldn’t deal with it, about time and about God. And if God is forever then who created forever? If god created everything who created God? Wait, that one stuck. The only way to say that nobody created God is to say, well, the Bible says it, so I believe it. But, Stephen, I’m not being facetious here, if we truly believe that the existence of something is defacto proof for a creator of that said something, how can we not say that something, someone, by the same deduction must have created God? There is no scientific answer here. Nothing other than the act of faith of believing it.
I’m not saying that having that faith is wrong. I’m just saying that for me, there was no longer a need for that when I saw that it just didn’t add up to the reality of my own life and the world I see around me. I don’t think Christianity is bad exactly, but a literal interpretation, even partially, is tremendously dangerous. It nearly killed our old friend Galileo and many like him. It prevents some believers from getting the medical help they need. And while it’s true that a wounded man needs a crutch, holding onto a crutch too long can actually be bad for that man’s long term health.
So please don’t be baffled by my change from believer to unbeliever. It was a natural and very long progression. I don’t mean to disparage your faith entirely. I only want you to know that you are far stronger than that misguided dogma of American Protestantism has taught you to believe. You are not merely a worthless sinner born flawed and hopelessly corrupt without their solution, their dark and skewed interpretation of Jesus.
Okay, to continue. You brought up The Big Bang and Noah’s flood. So I’ll try to be extremely brief. My apologies for going on too long last time. I should have edited that down.
Okay, Big Bang. You mention, and I’ve noticed a lot of other people mention this too, the idea of “something from nothing.” Well, quite frankly, that misses the point. No scientist says that the big bang is something from nothing. It was the beginning of the universe we know from something very, very small and very, very hot. I’m not going to pretend to be a physicist, but in the very first sentence of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, he asserts that “all the space and all the matter and all the energy of the known universe was contained in a volume one trillionth the size of the period that ends this sentence.” Now, whether or not you agree with that, it’s certainly not the beginning of an explanation about something from nothing. That’s creationists putting those words into the mouths of scientists who haven’t said it.
To me, to assert, well, there’s something! That means someone created it! If creation exists, that means there had to be a creator! Ignoring for a second the circular logic of this statement, let’s just say that while cause and effect is a thing, it’s very hard to prove cause this long after the event, and to just say that existence proves a creator is a whole huge non answer as much as trying to say the big bang was something from nothing. Now we can get into the whole blind watchmaker theory, but Richard Dawkins for all his unnecessary causticness has already addressed this better than I could have. Except I might add that the theory is flawed from its outset, from the presumption that you can compare the universe to something man made in the first place. You set a ball rolling downhill and you don’t need a deity to push it, there are processes already at work and saying, well god put those into effect really doesn’t answer the question of whether or not he exists.
So, onto other things. You mentioned Noah’s flood and fossils. Well, there are plenty of ancient writings, the Sumerian myth of the Gilgamesh Epic, for instance, that tell of a world wide flood. This doesn’t prove there was one, or that the Genesis account was referring to older texts or that they each refer to the same thing. While there may be some evidence of great flooding, the evidence for one that flooded the whole earth is just not there, especially evidence to prove that it happened a mere 5,000 years ago. You mention the Grand Canyon’s fossils being mixed. That’s exactly what they are not. There are no examples of one period of time’s fossils mixing in with fossils from later periods of time. Bill Nye has a great debate with Ken Ham over his Ark Experience museum on YouTube. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube. Ham is not very convincing, And the number of scientists who believe his literal interpretation of the flood are so very few in number. And Stephen, you are a smart guy, you know it’s not because they are wicked men trying to subvert God’s word. They are people who research, study and ask questions to try to discover the truth, and the truth doesn’t line up with the Noah story.
Why are you so intent on, why does Christianity, or some parts of it, insist that a literal interpretation of Genesis is necessary to believe in god anyway? If the story doesn’t match reality, you reassess how you interpret the story. I mean, this is what men like Copernicus and Galileo already came up against at the stellar level. So, over time, most church folk could eventually take the “four corners of the earth” to be metaphorical, why can’t we do similar things with the seven-day creation account and the great flood?
Finally, back to what I was saying about the strength inside of us. When my mother died, I said something to someone, I said, I could not have gotten through it without God. And my boss at the time surprised me by saying, “Yes, you could.” And I had to stop and think, he’s got a point. Millions of people get through so many things on this earth, so many horrors and losses without a literal belief in Jesus as their savior. Is that to say that getting through addiction is easy? No. But I’m saying, if there was no god, you’d be strong enough to do this. You already are, but you (in my view) are crediting an unseen being with your own success.
And why do I think this is bad? I admit, I already said in my very first response, “I’m totally okay with the idea of god as metaphor for the unseen, inexplicable strength, courage, and kindness that we have inside of us.” But I think that the 12 step program’s biggest flaw is its heavy dependence on the higher power. It starts out with this focus: “You are weak. You can’t do this.” And then points you toward leaning on the higher power to give you that strength. If there is anything to this “surrender” doctrine it is in admitting that things have gotten way out of control and you need to find strength and courage and HELP to reorder our life. But if you focus on the message “you are weak” rather than “addiction is killing you,” and there’s no way to get beyond that unless people “surrender” to this higher power . . . man, they are already beaten. Why do the fallen have to surrender? I know, I understand the theology, please don’t explain it to me again. I think it’s deeply flawed, and to start by telling people you are born losers, you are entirely corrupt and guilty at birth . . . Christ, is it any wonder the world is so hopeless as it is, and we can just easily blame our sinful natures, original sin. As a dad, I started with the premise, not that my children were sinful and corrupt, but that they were good people who needed love and discipline. And they have turned out to be among the kindest people I know. It astounds me that the fundamentalist Christian tradition ascribes attributes to Jesus and God the Father that we would never accept from human parents, unless of course, we wanted to control those under our care and excuse our own failings.
David, I believe I was mistaken about the comment regarding fossil evidence in the Grand Canyon. This is merely one reason why I am not exactly qualified to take the stance of an apologist at this time, but I’m working toward it. Oh, and I did use “diatribe” improperly. I meant to type “dialog” as I enjoy these point/counterpoint discussions with you or anyone. There is so much in your comments from both replies as there is in my initial post. There are dozens of related posts on my site under the heading SPIRITUALITY that (again) may contain some errors. This is regrettable given my intention to share what I believe to be the truth about the creation of the universe. Incidentally, I do not believe Earth (or the universe, for that matter) is a mere 6,000 years old. In fact there are numerous scholars of systematic theology that have reached the same conclusion. Some of my Christian friends tell me this is a “slippery slope” that tends to sound like I don’t support the inerrancy of Scripture. (By the way, I do.) I have a copy of the book from the Nye/Ham Debate, including a full transcript in the appendix. I need to read through it. I currently have at least 17 books in my personal library on apologetics-related subjects, including revised interpretation of Darwinism and increased knowledge of biochemistry and neuroscience that puts some of the “evolving” of consciousness, the five senses, and other matters in a new light. I think that I am actually baffled by your change from a man who believed in the Christian God and studied theology to someone who now equates Yahweh with all other ‘gods’ (small-g). Not to rip of the title of a book I have in my library, but I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist. I am far to amazed at the consistency of Scripture, the numerous historical, scientific, and geographical findings that clarify or support the idea of a Divine Designer (yes, I know about the Dawkins “watchmaker” analogy). Further, I find much support for the accuracy of the Bible from a historical perspective as well. I’ve been down the road where I no longer believed. Perhaps it was just bold disobedience or stubborn denial. In conclusion, this really is a matter of worldview. It is very difficult for someone who does NOT believe in God or a Creator to prove a negative. Lastly, you said my comment that nothing can come from nothing; that matter had to be created. You said the universe DID NOT come from nothing because there was a “very, very small and very, very hot” something. For me, anyone (not singling you out) who says there always was “something” and a huge explosion turned it into an ever-expanding universe (complete with “invention” of time, space, and physics) is missing the point. That this hot something had to come from something. Gotta go. Jeopardy! is starting. It’s my OTHER obsession. Take care my friend.
David, I am not at all offended or wounded by your reply to this post. First, if I were I would lack the personal and spiritual maturity I claim to have (although there is still room for much growth). What concerns me is how you’ve “lost” your own faith, but I suspect you believe you’ve found the “truth.” One thing you might not realize is that I have undertaken a master’s degree in theology, which begins on August 26. Further, I have decided to focus on systematic theology, Christian doctrine, church history, the deity of Christ, and apologetics. I am rather excited about all of this and hope to write, teach and lecture on these matters. It remains my goal to publish one day. I am working on my memoir, and I have (as you noted) published many articles on this blog regarding the matter of spirituality in general and Christian doctrine in particular. I also expect to get involved (once again) in some form of prison ministry.
The reason I expressed myself the way you noticed in this article is simply because I have been unable to accomplish lasting sobriety or any degree of maturity (whether spiritual or otherwise) without surrendering to Christ. In fact, my delay in surrender (which is still not complete by any stretch of the imagination) is precisely what led to continued practice of what I and Scripture calls “deliberate sin.” Further, my studies relative to Christian theology and apologetics has helped ground my spiritual beliefs. I do not think any HUMAN power (including my own) could have broken the bonds of active addiction over my life. I can base this on dozens of relapses while attending Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous and 21 days at White Deer Rehab. I’ve been breaking promises to people since I began drinking and drugging at age eighteen. I’ve broken the hearts of two ex-wives and virtually everyone in my family for decades. I was not able to (by myself) stop using despite my desire (in my heart) to do so. This is why the only credit I can give myself (and this is in no matter a small thing) is in choosing to surrender and to allow myself to be changed. Sure, that sounds mystical to many, but I truly believe things of the metaphysical (the spiritual, if you will) cannot be grasped by our finite, physical intellect.
You used a very appropriate term: worldview. That is precisely what we’re talking about. We each have a unique worldview, which is rooted in everything we’ve experienced, read, studied, experienced, and done over our lives. Yes, that includes being raised in a Christian household. Although I would have likely grown up Hindu if I were born in India, I believe that would’ve only been the foundation on which my worldview at that time would have been based. However, worldview can and does change. If I believe I am called of God to perform a particular service (mission or ministry if you prefer), I would have become a Christian at some point. I know this sounds like Calvinism, but it is not. I believe the only extent to which I (or anyone for that matter) is “predestined” to be, as they say, “saved” is because first God sees the whole of time not in any linear fashion as we do but as everything that ever was, is now, and will be in one eternal snapshot. The predestination taught in Christian doctrine, in my personal view, is speaking of the predestination of the method for salvation which God ordained before the foundation of the world.
Further, I don’t believe God sending his Son to die on the cross is barbaric or nonsensical. That’s because I DO believe mankind is deserving of utter punishment for (yes) sin. As with Old Testament practice, there has never been a redemption from sin without the shedding of blood. The yearly sacrifices were done under incredibly precise practices for a reason: to show us that we cannot possibly “create” our own forgiveness in the eyes of God, nor is our personal righteousness anything but filthy rags. I’ve heard this argument from the mouths of Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins. God has been described as a “heavenly depot” who relishes doling out harsh and inhumane punishments, and that His requirement that Jesus suffer such an excruciating death (as a human sacrifice) is terribly monstrous and barbaric. My response to that is that Christ, since the beginning, has wanted to fulfill that function. That we have no access to Him or the Father without being first made righteous in the Father’s eyes.
Newer science (especially in biochemistry, anatomy, genetics, geography, and astrophysics) has been steadily proving a “creation” of matter from nothing at the Big Bang. Interestingly, the term was initially conncoted by Fred Hoyle in 1949 in order to counter the idea of a static universe. He hoped it would prove his point, but it has been misused extensively for decades. Further, I believe there was a Great Flood, and that this is a perfectly reasonable explanation for why the fossil record is difficult to follow in a straight line. I have much to learn in this area, but I’ve been convinced of its truth. A friend of mine recently toured a museum where there is a precise replica of Noah’s Ark. He said the sight is mind-boggling. It is almost four football fields in length. There is only ONE way in; one main door. Once that door was closed and the waters began to rise, the door was inaccessible. I have also come to understand the meaning of “kinds” of animals, and that pairs were not necessarily two-by-two. Further, there was much more diversity among the animals on the Ark than Darwin and others have cared to admit. Besides, neither Darwin nor astrophysics has ever properly answered the question about the ORIGIN of life, matter, or the universe. NOTHING can beget itself. As Billy Preston sang, “Nothing from nothing leaves nothing.”
I actually enjoy these types of diatribes. I expect to be doing this formally, perhaps on college campuses, at some point in the future. So thanks for the challenge. I enjoyed it.
I’ve always liked and respected you my friend and miss our daily interaction. God bless (whether you believe in HIM or not) and keep in touch. Although I suspect you make have a rebuttal to this rather lengthy response. (Feels like “debate” already. LOL!)
Well, you certainly have given a lot to respond to. From Old Testament Sacrifices, to the Big Bang. So it’s a little bit impossible for me not to want to at least attempt a reply. I guess I cannot blame you for a response that is frankly “all over the map.” After all, I did open up a can of worms. One that I’ve mostly avoided discussing with you since our library days.
But I want to address as many of these things you bring up as well as I can in a brief fashion. And I’d like to ask a few questions first. I’m curious what you mean by “diatribe.” According to M. Webster, you mean one of three things:
di·a·tribe | \ ˈdī-ə-ˌtrīb \
Definition of diatribe
1 : a bitter and abusive speech or piece of writing
2 : ironic or satirical criticism
3 archaic : a prolonged discourse
Second question, you say you “enjoy these diatribes,” but after you tell me which kind you mean, please clarify which one of us was doing one? I’m a bit surprised to here you say that you are “not at all offended or wounded by (my) reply to this post,” but then you bring up the specter of bitter, abusive talk, or satirical critique. I’d like to think I was doing none of those things, and you don’t seem to be either.
Next, before we get into the rest, can we focus for a few minutes on the original questions, regarding, in your words “surrender.” Tell me where that word is used in the Bible (obviously, not in Hebrew or Greek, but a linguistic equivalent where no other word suffices). “Present yourself a living sacrifice,” sure. Submit, certainly. But where, aside from the likes of Billy Graham, did this war language come from? Surrender? Did the prodigal son surrender to his father? Did any of Jesus disciples do anything that could accurately be called surrender? Why all of this “onward Christian soldiers” talk, “marching as to war”?
I think it’s probably a good thing to study systematic theology. I still have a variety of Bibles and concordances on my shelf. Studying what the Bible actually says compared to what preachers say it says was the beginning of what you call my loss of faith. Not something for you to concern yourself with. I wouldn’t say either that I have “found the truth,” only began to discover how much of what I taught was not based on any real search for truth, but rather on an indoctrination in a certain interpretation of dogma, and also the discovering of just how much I/we don’t know.
To continue where I left off, because I don’t want to ignore the points you brought up, I have to say this is not carefully edited content, and for that I apologize.
You bring up an excellent point about how your worldview or mine might be different had we grown up in a Hindu household. I imagine we would not be having this discussion at all. Or maybe we’d be having one about whether Vishnu, Shiva, or Brahma were the most important of the gods. Interestingly enough, while conversions certainly happen, for the vast majority of people, the conviction, the absolute certainty of their religion is highly influenced by which one they grew up in.
And yes, your conviction that you would have converted eventually, does sound a bit like Calvinism, but I’m not certain that is any worse than a denomination who claims that you are saved by Christ and Christ alone, but you yourself, a mere human can undo the work of God’s sacrifice and lose your salvation. Yeah, for a while I actually came to see my father’s once-saved-always-saved was more logical and Biblical than what the Wesleyans taught.
And this explanation that God did not destine you for salvation but simply sees all time at once and KNOWS you’d be saved is a pretty convenient workaround that I’ve heard and even used in the past. In the end, it looks like smoke and mirrors. One more way for the Church to say, well, we don’t have an answer, but God, he’s so mysterious. We could never fathom his ways. An amazingly convenient answer.
That you believe all mankind truly is deserving of suffering and death . . . This scares me. Honestly. Especially when I try to put that concept up against the idea that God also loves us so much that he gave his son to die for us. There is a reason the likes of Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins all make these arguments. They are the logical starting point. Just like many other logical things I questioned as a child but then was told by my parents, pastors, or Sunday school teachers either, “Oh, it’s a mystery,” or just some evasion that hinted it would all make sense someday.
What were some of those things I questioned as a kid? Well, and I’m not basing my beliefs or lack thereof on them, only showing how very logical a child can be before we’re told to turn off our brains and have “faith.” What follows are just a few:
1. If there was no death before Adam and Eve sinned, did Tiger’s have sharp claws and teeth? Or did predators develop (evolve) canine teeth later? What did they eat before that?
2. If the Wise Men gave Jesus expensive gifts like gold, why did he grow up among the working class (admittedly, not the words I used, but the idea, the question was there when I was quite young)? Shouldn’t there at least be a story about how Jesus family gave the money away to feed the poor–what a great Bible story and example that would have been!
3. If the wise men followed the star . . . . I mean, even as a child I knew that stars were miles and miles from earth and one could be over my head while also over the head of someone miles away. But, if it wasn’t a star, what was it?
4. How did all those animals fit on the ark and how did they all survive for a year? Now, to be fair, I did not question HOW all the animals got there from every corner of the earth, nor did I imagine that Noah’s family went and tracked them down. I took it as true what my teachers told me: God called all of those animals to do what they did. It was God’s doing, which, of course, always explained everything. If God was God, there was not questioning. He could do anything he wanted.
But 5. Why did He have all the women and children of Jericho slaughtered? “Oh child, that’s the Old Testament.” But isn’t god the same yesterday today and forever? “Stop asking questions, come on everyone, let’s all sing a praise song!”
We are told to become like children. Except for the questioning part. The very basis of critical and original thinking, of problem solving, of science itself: Doubt, becomes a failing. Questioning becomes a sin. If you want people to obey you without question, tell them you love them, but make it a sin, a violation of some sort, for them to even doubt you. If you or I saw such behavior and teaching in any other group, we would cry out and point to it as evidence of it being a cult, a destructive, controlling force, but as fundamentalist Christians, we fail to see it in my own church’s doctrine.
And yes, it’s a beautiful story that I have often told others, and had them tell me that nobody had explained it to them so beautifully and simply. That while on the one hand God demands death for sin, on the other he provides his own son to pay for our sins. It’s perfect and it’s a wonderful story. Where it fails is where I cannot imagine failing my own children. What kind of father would I be if I said I will sacrifice for you, but if you fail to accept the sacrifice, or as you say, Stephen, “surrender” to my will, you will be eternally punished. He either paid the debt or he didn’t.
Oh, but then we explain about the concept of free will. Free will, where we are both enticed and threatened. Burn in hell for your sin, or be rewarded for your “love” by an eternity in heaven where your father has prepared a place for you. But as someone else so aptly asked, how is it free will if you are compelled to love at gunpoint? This isn’t an amateur question. It’s one that a child asks, yes, but it’s because, as I said, in a childlike state (which the Bible, in Jesus’ words, claims is a good state to be in) we want to know answers, all the ‘why, why, why’ my sons asked me as toddlers. But there’s something else that happens as children, which is more what our teachers in the faith, I think wanted to imply. When we feel we are loved, we trust. When we trust, we believe in things like Santa and the Tooth Fairy. Why would our parents not tell us the truth? So, of course we believed them. Also in things like, don’t go near that abandoned house or the boogeyman will get you. Things like that may be no less true but they may keep a child safe.
And so we are kept in line either through fear or trust, but there is never really a freedom of questioning unless it is in a very limited fashion, on the basis that the word of god is both infallible and inspired. I honestly slowly grew up and grew out of that doctrine I was raised on, and part of that process was enhanced by studying it, along with my own curiosity. I’ve studied Francis Shaffer’s concepts on presuppositional apologetics, read C.S. Lewis’ The Problem with Pain (did a paper on that one) and Mere Christianity. I grew up on Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict series and his More than a Carpenter book. I’ve been through all this, and even made the arguments myself until I just kept coming back to those simple questions (and many more besides) and had to wonder why all these arguments for god come back to faith and circular logic.
A lot of people seem to think it has to do with my coming out of the closet, but even after that happened, I led a gay men’s Bible study for a while. It’s just that I already knew so many things wrong with the church’s interpretations of scripture. My preaching from the pulpit, I was told, was better because of my questioning and pushing the envelope. But the “gay thing” wasn’t the only thing that the church failed to get right. Not by a long shot, and I knew that, and over time, the answers just didn’t suffice. I remember you asking me questions like that when we worked at the library. I just was leery of getting into it at work, and to be honest, I already went through all that, so wasn’t sure I wanted to waste my energy going over it all again. Eventually, I had to admit, I just didn’t believe this stuff anymore.
And that was incredibly freeing. That we could be better people because we chose to be and could find others to help us do that, not because someone we couldn’t question had some mysterious plan for our lives. And that’s the impulse that drove us toward the church in the first place, not just the fear and trembling, but to do good, and to be a good person. None of that or the strength to do it needs a god in the picture for it to happen.
I should stress again, because I don’t think it was clear. I think I’m okay with the idea that god is in us, and that we are all connected. That isn’t really as new agey as it sounds. I think the concept is there in the Bible too. And taking the stories of the Bible and the life of Jesus as metaphors for how we react to our own spiritual lives, can be helpful, I’m sure. But to take those books as literally as the churches you and I grew up with is a dangerous thing ultimately. You have to either believe some monstrous things, or you have to ignore the questioning of your own inquisitive interior to come up with contorted, god-is-a-mystery non answers, or just bury your doubt so deep as to not think about it.
Maybe some of that makes me sound like more of an agnostic, but I think of it as atheistic, not in any sort of aggressive, angry way, but in the classic sense of simply being “without theism.”
Okay, I know that’s a lot, but you brought up a lot to respond to. Two things I still haven’t gotten back to is your paragraphs on science and the need to get strength from somewhere other than the depths of our own hearts. I’ll get back to that next time. Thanks for listening.
Steve, I’m going to respond to this in a way that you are going to dislike. I have been reading these posts of yours from time to time and recognize your intelligence, your clarity of thought, and I respect it so very much. But old friend, that clarity of thought and keenness of insight, frankly, fall apart when you start talking about surrender and sin.
Probably, I should make a blog post of my own about this, rather than taint yours with my world view, but in my way of seeing it, you did not recover from addiction (repeatedly) or become a better person because of some unseen being, you did it because you somehow found help from others and strength in yourself. It’s easier to explain where that unseen strength comes from if you can pin it on a deity who no one has ever seen in this life. It’s a helpful way to explain away a lot of mystery. Believe me, I understand. I was a theology student once upon a time, as you no doubt recall.
But you give yourself far too little credit. And to be blunt, you give others far too little credit as well. Those men, Brilliant and Gravy and their wives have done amazing things because they DID them, not because some unseen spirit worked on them to do His will. That kind of thinking has us thanking an invisible god rather than reaching out, shaking each other’s hands, hugging and expressing our gratitude toward each other. This belief that they did good despite being essentially evil and corrupt of the heart as the Christian religion has taught us is a way to dismiss the good in each other and further divide us, rather than bring us together in connection and peace. And as long as we all cling to our mythologies and literal interpretations of whatever scripture we swear by, we will never look each other in the eye and give credit where credit is due.
When my mother was in the hospital, my father says there was a man, he cannot remember if he was a doctor or a hospital administrator. But when my father told him that Mom wanted to die at home, this man assured him that though it was not covered by her insurance, he would make sure that she had a hospital bed at home, and the things she needed, and that Dad should not worry about the costs, that they would be “taken care of.” Dad, to this day, credits this with God’s divine work and plan. I say that’s in one sense a sweet thought, but it’s bunk. Not only is it bunk, but it is irresponsible and wrong. Why? Because for the sacrifice of fitting into Dad’s view of the world and of God, it allows him to ignore the reality of the fact that this hospital bed, costs and all, was provided by SOMEONE, a human being, who deserves thanks for what he did (or arranged). The more we credit an unseen entity with the accomplishments of our fellow humans, and of ourselves, the easier it is to pretend that we do not have an obligation to each other for each other and from ourselves, not from some mystic unseen plan.
Jesus (pardon me, I do not mean the person), it is frightening to have to look each other in the eye and say, “I thank you for your kindness,” or scarier yet, “I am sorry, I have wronged you” or “I was so caught up in myself that I neglected you.” But that is precisely what we need to do in order to create connection with each other. The reason prayer works (to the extent that it does) is not because it produces magic results from someone in the sky who must decide, ‘Okay, I guess he prayed hard enough, I’ll answer this,’ or ‘Well, it all fits in with my great plan anyway, so I’ll let them have the answer they want this time.’ No, it works because we have allowed our minds to focus on the problem by speaking it out loud or in our heads. And by doing so, potential solutions become more apparent to us because we have focused on the problem. Better yet, when we share prayer requests with each other, we see answers because we have made each other aware of ways in which people can be of assistance. We provide a hospital bed for a dying mother because someone has made us aware of a need that we can fill.
I’m totally okay with the idea of god as metaphor for the unseen, inexplicable strength, courage, and kindness that we have inside of us, but this literal interpretation that in essence creates a being who says, ‘I love you so much that I died for you, and if you don’t love me back I will make sure that you burn and suffer for eternity,’ is utter madness, Stephen. The first part is a beautiful thought and can be metaphorical for how we can sacrifice and give to each other, but the second part is poison born of false guilt and the desire of selfish people who wish to control us. At best it is shortsighted.
After all these years and the tragedies and triumphs I have experienced, the books I have read, the pain I have witnessed, caused, and felt, it makes far more sense to me to believe that we are “risen apes, not fallen angels.” You write a logical, beautiful, insightful post and then throw it away at the end with this heartbreaking need you seem to have to punish yourself and credit god with all the goodness you have done and wrought, despite the real and medical truths of addiction and suffering. Please stop doing this to yourself.
And forgive me, because I know you will feel this as harsh. I only say it because despite our weaknesses, we are who we are because we desire to be good, to be kinder, to be better, and we do not need some fiery hell or impossible deity to bring it about. We scrape and scrabble and achieve because of a combination of inner strength and the help of other good people who see our plight and reach out. I got tired long ago of a mythological deity who was standing, despite my belief, in between me and myself and the good of other human beings.
Thanks for taking the time to read this, old friend. And be good to yourself. Despite an ancient religion that tells you that without their leader you are nothing without him, you ARE good. The evidence of your daily attempts to right any wrong you have done is plain to see, and you deserve to be good to yourself.