Is God a War Criminal? January 30, 2012Posted by Matt in EfM.
Tags: Bob Dylan, conquering Canaan, EFM, evil, genocide, God's favor, Israel, Joshua, war crimes
I’ve written before on more than one occasion that I’m going through the EfM (Education for Ministry) program at our church and that it has been quite interesting and enlightening. In case you don’t recall what it is, EfM is a four year program from the Sewanee School of Theology that takes participants through the Old Testament (year 1), the New Testament (year 2), Church History (year 3), and Theology (year 4). Each week we work through in depth readings from the Bible and the materials from Sewanee, then we meet on Sunday evenings to discuss the things we learned and talk our way through various issues. Every time we meet I’m struck by the level of intelligence and insight from my fellow parishioners and it has quickly become something I greatly look forward to each week.
Last week’s reading was a troubling one for me, though, as I read through the book of Joshua, the account of Israel’s conquering of Canaan. In this book, you read time and again where, according to the writer, God tells Israel to completely wipe out cities, killing every man, woman, and child, in order to take possession of it. In essence, God is telling Israel to commit genocide.
It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around a God characterized by love, who later in the manifestation of Jesus is known as the prince of peace, that then demands these sorts of atrocities be carried out. It’s certainly not a God I would want to follow. So the question must be asked, should God be automatically absolved of these acts? Should God be held accountable? Is our sense of morality today better than God’s? We would surely not hesitate to condemn actions like these if taken today.
It’s a difficult situation, and one that I can only reconcile by looking beyond the actual text. In reading the accompanying materials, you learn that these accounts were most likely written much later, centuries after the actual conquest took place. I wonder if, when looking back, the writers felt the need to justify these actions and in doing so, bolster their claim to be the chosen people of God. Is there a better way to legitimize unconscionable acts than to proclaim it the will of God?
This of course led me to reference the great Bob Dylan song, “With God on Our Side,” and its lyrics describing the dangerous American myth of divine predilection. It’s a dangerous thing to believe that deity can be claimed and contained, yet the idea continues to perpetuate itself around the world, whether in followers of radical Islam, the fundamentalist churches of America, or untold numbers of other ways.
The farther away I’ve gotten from a belief that the Bible is inerrant and perfect, the better my understanding has become. There’s still a long way to go and a lot of questions to ask, but this look at things has done wonders to soothe my soul.
P.S. In succeeding meetings I’ve name dropped Derrida and Dylan. This is my kind of program.
Further Reflections on Spirit April 4, 2011Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs, church.
Tags: Brahman, evil, Holy Spirit, indwelling spirit, love, qi, unforgivable sin
add a comment
Last week I wrote a piece about the concept of spirit and our discussion of it in that week’s Sunday morning class. In case you missed it and don’t want to click back on the link, we spoke of it as a universal spirit, indwelling in all of nature, a God-presence coursing through the very veins of creation. In its omnipresence and power, it may be compared to the Brahman of the Hindu religion or the qi of Chinese philosophy or even The Force.
Wednesday night our priest, Patrick, went further into this idea and took up the idea of the unforgivable sin – blaspheming the Holy Spirit. This whole concept has always been a bit mysterious to me because, really, what does it mean to “blaspheme the spirit” anyway? Do you have to say, “Hey spirit, screw you!” That just doesn’t make any sense.
Patrick explained it in this way: if the spirit inhabits all of mankind (or all of creation, for that matter), then blaspheming the spirit would be to point at a fellow human being and call them evil. This of course does not excuse evil actions, but it instead creates a distinction, one in which human beings are ultimately good, even made “in the image of God,” yet they have a tendency to misuse this divine power, to perpetrate acts that can only be described as evil. This evil takes many forms and can go far beyond the realm of depraved serial killers and their ilk, to one where even our inner prejudices and thoughts that we are better than others, is “unforgivable.” It was a profound idea and one that has stuck in my thoughts over the days since then.
So, then what hope is there for anyone if even our tendency to lock our car doors in certain neighborhoods or to look the other way when particular people pass by is “unforgivable?”
I think “unforgivable” is an unfortunate term to use in this instance because, in reality, nothing is truly unforgivable. In my eyes, this looks to be a piece of the hyperbole that Jesus was apt to use in order to make his point. You might compare it to his statement that calling someone a “fool” is a bad enough misstep to send one to eternal damnation. I mean, I seem to remember Jesus himself calling people foolish at times.
In the end, I think the best answer is to treat people, all people, as you want them to treat you. When we look at others as vessels for the divine, we do away with racism and bigotry and condemnation and instead find the joy inherent in life and love with our fellow humans.
On the Watchmen and Morality March 11, 2009Posted by Matt in books, philosophy.
Tags: deontology, Dr. Manhattan, evil, good, Immanuel Kant. consequentialism, John Stuart Mill, moral absolutism, morality, philosophy, Rorschach, utilitarianism, Watchmen
I re-read the incredible graphic novel, Watchmen, last week and was able to see the newly released movie on Friday night, so, as would be expected, I’ve been thinking about it a good bit. The book itself is complex in its dealings with human nature, God, society, and a host of other issues, but one piece of the overall puzzle that caught my attention was its treatment of morality, and the conflict between major schools of moral thinking.
While the Comedian could be included as an example of amoral philosophy, there are two characters in particular that I would like to look at, each of whom tend to reside on opposite ends of the moral spectrum – Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach.
Throughout the book, Rorschach displays a sort of black and white moral absolutism, a personal philosophy shaped by his past experiences on the street. He displays this time and again, both through statements like “There is good and there is evil, and evil must be punished. Even in the face of Armageddon I shall not compromise on this,” and through his actions in punishing with no remorse those he perceives as evil. This worldview becomes particularly clear in the end when the characters discover Veidt’s plot to end nuclear escalation and avoid global war by orchestrating a catastrophic event that kills millions, rather than the billions that might die in said war, and Rorschach stands as the lone dissenting voice, refusing to acquiesce. Moral absolutism, such as that exhibited by Rorschach, is a subset of an approach to ethics known as deontology, which can be defined as a branch of ethics dealing with duty, moral obligation, and right action. Immanuel Kant was a noted deontologist whose moral philosophy was centered upon the concept of duty. One’s duty is a direct consequence of what Kant called the categorical imperative, a standard of rationality which begets a moral structure. In the story, it was Rorschach’s uncompromising dedication to duty, built upon a categorical imperative defining evil that led him to act in the way that he did and that eventually led to his death. In his view, as well as that of Kant, some actions are always evil, regardless of circumstances.
On the other side of the coin stands the manifestation of a man-made, deist God, Dr. Manhattan. Throughout the book, Manhattan stays coldly aloof from humanity, apart from the cares and wants of others. It is not until the end of the book, as Veidt’s plan for an act of horrific violence to end worldwide hostilities comes to light, that we really see the bedrock upon which his moral sense stands. As the story reaches its climax, Manhattan, with his near-omnipotent powers, certainly has the ability to put a halt to the plan that would destroy much of New York, yet he chooses not to do so, instead allowing millions to die in order to save the lives of billions. This type of moral philosophy is known as consequentialism. Consequentialism is the idea that the consequences of an action are more important than the action itself. Therefore, if the outcome is desirable, then the method of reaching that outcome is morally good, or, in more Machiavellian terms, “the end justifies the means.” Utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill may have expressed this best when he wrote about “The greatest good for the greatest number.”
So, we find the moral predicament of the Watchmen similar to that which has plagued our world for ages. Which is more important, the end or the means?
The Passing of Ethan and the Problem of Evil April 8, 2008Posted by Matt in god, theodicy.
Tags: Ethan Powell, evil, god, theodicy
add a comment
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, 16 month old Ethan Powell passed from this world over the weekend, finally losing his valiant fight against the invading cancer. During times like these, you can’t help but wonder, “Why?” Why would God allow this to happen?
Thoughout the eons of time this has been a recurring question that has confounded thinkers throughout the land. A few hundred years before the birth of Christ, Epicurus stated,
“Either God wants to abolish evil and cannot, or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?”
Two millennia later, this same question was restated by Enlightenment philosopher David Hume:
“God’s power we allow is infinite: Whatever he wills is executed: But neither man nor any other animal are happy: Therefore he does not will there happiness. His wisdom is infinite: He is never mistaken in choosing the means to any end: But the course of nature tends not to human or animal felicity: Therefore it is not established for that purpose. Through the whole compass of human knowledge, there are no inferences more certain and infalliable than these. In what respect, then, do his benevolence and mercy resemble the benevolence and mercy of men.”
So we turn to each other with eyes wide and hands upturned and ask with a sense of bewilderment, “Why?” Why must small children like Ethan suffer and die from terrible diseases? We turn our heads to the sky, shake our fists, and cry out in anguish and anger, for we do not understand. How can a good God allow such horrible suffering and loss?
Some might view this as a sort of divine retribution in which God strikes down sinners or those they love to teach a lesson, giving this divine being the equivalent of an itchy trigger finger.
There are those who firmly believe that all things go according to a predetermined plan and, while the death of an infant might bring about some sadness, it will further the celestial blueprint by which the universe runs. Of course, this turns Him into a morally ambiguous God for whom, “the end justifies the means.”
The book I’ve been reading recently, Gregory Boyd’s “Is God to Blame,” posits another interesting idea into our cauldron of conjectures. Boyd speaks of an invisible existence in which angels and demons wage constant spiritual warfare, which turns disease and disaster into collateral damage from their celestial conflict.
For my own view, though, I turn to the invisible world of quantum physics. In the preceding centuries, scientists, for the most part, saw the material world as patterned and predictable. The world of Newtonian physics bestowed the idea upon great thinkers that our universe was concrete. In the early 20th century, though, something changed. Scientists, while studying the building blocks of matter, came to the conclusion that these seemingly indivisible objects could, in fact, be broken down farther and soon a level of uncertaintly entered the equation and we learned that perhaps our universe is not so concrete after all. Maybe, regardless of how learned we become, there will always be a remnant of mystery, leading even the most intelligent to scratch their heads in puzzlement. Our mastery of the world will continue to grow, but there will always exist some bit of mystery that cannot be uncovered.
In the end we shrug our shoulders, shed a tear, and continue to move forward. We put our arms around each other and practice that divine gift of love to our fellow man.
Talking Theology with a Five Year Old September 17, 2007Posted by Matt in evil, Rachel, theology.
Tags: evil, human nature, Rachel, Satan
1 comment so far
Originally Posted 9/17/07
My daughters are very analytical children, always asking questions about everything from natural phenomena to the origins of the clothes on our backs, but this weekend one small query from her threw me for the proverbial loop.
“Daddy,” she asked with an inquisitive sort of look on her face, “Who is Satan?”
I was taken aback for a moment with the immensity of her three word query. How do you answer?
Do you take the premodern viewpoint that the devil is a celestial being constantly waging a dualistic war with God that he is doomed to eventually lose? Do you fill her with Dantean stories of eternal torture to frighten her into doing the right thing? Do you tell her of a shadowy figure, bathed in darkness and with an unquenchable yearning for death, destruction, and corrupted human souls?
In other words, do you tell them something that you believe to be in error?
My children are rather intelligent, if I do say so myself, but I don’t think she is quite ready to grasp the idea that I would espouse. I don’t think she could understand that the idea of the devil is a metaphor for a human nature that tends toward the worship of self. I think she would have trouble with the idea of the devil as an excuse for behavior that is not consistent with the way of Christ. I doubt that I could tell her about how the notion of an evil supreme being most likely came from the influence of the dualistic Zoroastrians on early Christians.
Do you tell a small child that we, all of humanity, are the devil?
Well, in order not to bruise her delicate psyche and turn her into a religious cynic like her father, I took an easy way out.
“Well, honey, some people think that Satan is a really bad thing that is against God and tries to make you do what you are not supposed to.”
This time my non-answer placated her inquiring mind without resorting to the invalidation of my own beliefs, but it won’t be long until I will be forced to give stronger explanations and at this point. Then, before you know it, the investigations will turn to ideas of sin and evil and the social constructions behind them and, once again, I will be flabbergasted and at a loss for a correct answer that will not tear down the belief structure that she has built.
Whew! Nobody every said that parenting was easy….
Theological Tag February 22, 2007Posted by Matt in Uncategorized.
Tags: church, evil, Holy Spirit, Jesus, sin, theology
add a comment
Originally posted 2/22/07
Mac tagged me some time ago regarding a few questions from his Systematic Theology class and I figured that now is as good a time as any to answer them. The key is to answer these six questions in seven sentences or less.
1. What is the central message of the gospel?
The word “gospel” is an English translation of the Greek word ευαγγέλιον, which literally means “good message,” and that message is undoubtedly the immeasurable love of God. When God descended from His lofty home in the plane of eternal goodness that we know as heaven to serve us, mere mortals full of corruption and evil in our grimy little world caked thick with the muck of sin, it embodied that selfless love above all love. That’s it – love is what it’s all about.
2. What are the one or two most important questions for theologians to study?
Our world is one of sin and evil and darkness, where families are torn apart and children are murdered and thousands die beneath falling bombs for a supposed “greater good,” and it is within this context, one of darkness and destruction, that people look to the heavens and ask, “Why?” In a world slipping farther and farther into degradation, people want to know how a “good God” could allow such evil to happen. Canned answers won’t work any longer – people are looking for a good, thoughtful explanation (hint: the virtual dualism of modern Christianity just doesn’t jive any more).
3. What is the relationship of Jesus to the Father and to us?
Jesus is the human embodiment of the all-powerful Being, the ultimate reality that we know as God. Out of God’s boundless love, He came to earth in a human form – a form in which He lived, loved, worked, taught, and ultimately died at the hands of those He came to save. In His death, Jesus took the role of the sacrificial lamb – giving Himself, His body and His blood, for us, so that we might all have an eternal life with Him.
4. How does the Holy Spirit work today?
When man was created “in the image of God,” I believe that God endowed each of us with a small piece of His divine nature – a self awareness and an ability to choose our fate that other animals do not have. Humans, though, are terribly conceited and self-absorbed, and, because of that, we many times look past this great gift that has been bestowed on us by our Creator. The imbuing of the Holy Spirit on someone is the realization that God is the great Giver of this most wonderful gift.
5. How can we identify the “one true Church?”
The one true church is a state of mind and heart, identified by people who, through their love of God, love everyone unconditionally. Just as you know a tree by it’s fruit, you will know the “true church” by their radical love – for the poor, the sick, the enemies of America – and by their willingness to serve others, all others, regardless of the consequences.
6. What happens at Eschaton?
Everybody will find out that Tim LaHaye is full of it. (and not just a really, really bad writer)