Friday, September 25, 2009

Parable #2

The Parable of the Keyboard

A man plays a very tiny keyboard, perhaps only two octaves wide. He wants to hit low notes and he wants to hit high notes, but he cannot. While playing a tune, the man moves his fingers beyond the keyboard, left and right, to the place where the notes would be if the keyboard were longer at either end. He hears the notes in his mind, but it is frustrating that neither he nor anyone else can hear them in the air.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


C.S. Lewis properly defined faith as a virtue that allows us to hold on to our reasoned ideas in spite of any mood shifts or other temporary shaky grounds we might encounter. The "reasoned" part is important. Let's take a non-religious example. Let's say that you meet the same friend for lunch every Sunday at noon, always nearly on the dot. You've been doing this now for a year. One day it gets to be four minutes past twelve and your friend hasn't shown up. But you have faith that he will show up or will at least call to let you know what happened. Your faith is based on evidence, on reason, and you remain calm. You don't start cursing his name or thinking he doesn't exist. And sure enough, here your friend is at five minutes after, explaining that he got detoured because of a parade route. You can safely keep your faith.

Unfortunately (as I briefly suggested in the Mere Christianity post), many religious people aren't using this reasonable definition of faith. An example to illustrate their altered definition runs something like this. Your parents call you up and tell you that someone you haven't met wants to have lunch with you at noon and would like to make this a Sunday tradition. So you show up to the restaurant. The person isn't there, but you go ahead and order anyway. Not only do you order your food and begin happily eating, but you talk to the empty seat as if someone is sitting there. You do this every Sunday. Some people around you at the restaurant begin to question you, but you tell them, "I have faith." "Faith that this person will show up?" they ask (thinking perhaps you are in Waiting for Godot territory). "No," you say, "faith that he is right here in front of me. If you don't believe me, you must not have faith."

I don't think this is an exaggeration of what "faith" means to some people where God is concerned. If God is something that you arrived at because of some genuine reason, then fine. There will be reasons to have faith in him. But if you believe in God (or in something about God) simply because your parents told you (or some other "authority"), then you're just as insane as the guy talking to himself at the T.G.I. Friday's.

An actual example I've encountered over and over again that demonstrates something worse than this mentality is the person who was taught the Genesis stories at an early age and took them as literal fact. No harm, no foul yet--but eventually this same person has it proven to them (and this person, in a strong sense, believes the proof) that the earth is billions of years old, that evolution is a fact, that the story of Noah is an impossibility, etc. But, in spite of this proof, this person feels that it is the right thing to do to ignore this new evidence and insist that these Biblical events actually happened... on faith.

This person might be asked, "Okay, you don't like new evidence. What about stories even older than Genesis? What about stories about Ra from the Ancient Egyptians or stories about Marduk from the Mesopotamians? Is it not a lack of faith to have shifted from those works which are at least a thousand years older than the Bible?" The answer is usually something like "Those are just ridiculous" or "I don't know about those" or "That's not what I was taught."

So it turns out that the new and unimproved definition of faith is this: Faith is believing in whatever the very first fucking thing you ever heard was and sticking to it until the day you die no matter what reality has to say about it.

There's nothing wrong with believing almost anything (the literal nature of Genesis included) if you have a good reason for doing so, but can the above example be described as anything but a psychological disorder? If you are shown that something you thought was true isn't true anymore, it's your duty as a sane person to alter your beliefs. Otherwise you're even crazier than the restaurant guy talking to his invisible friend. Suddenly you're like a woman in the delivery room at the hospital watching your own child come out of your own body, loudly insisting that "No! The stork brought me this baby!"

The sad fact is that if you're really interested in knowing something about God, this new perverted definition of faith is the least helpful thing for you. If you're a Christian (for example), wasn't Christ something new that came along, something unexpected, something that went against the old beliefs? Isn't this why he was killed by people "of faith"? Couldn't Charles Darwin (for example) have been the new, unexpected prophet that God sent to show us a fuller picture of the beauty and splendor and drama of the world we live in? (Hint: yes he was.) Does God ever progress, or do we always have to be stuck in 500 BCE?

Faith is a good word. It's not connected with willful ignorance or hate or insanity. It's connected with reason and trust and an actual sense of security. So gimme my goddamned word back.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Parable of the Gay Man

Once there was a preacher whose colleagues felt he was a little too compassionate for his own good. And one day his fellow church leaders came into his office with a young man. Then they said to the preacher, "We have just found out that this man is a homosexual. The rules of our church says that he can no longer be a member of our congregation, but what do you say?" They wanted to test the preacher, so that they could perhaps remove him from his post.

At first the preacher just doodled on a notepad, as if he didn't hear them. But when the men became louder and asked the question again, the preacher said, "Anyone here who feels he is without sin and worthy to be in this congregation, I'll let that man kick this one out of our church." Then the preacher resumed doodling.

Every church leader left the room one by one, until only the young man and the preacher were left. The preacher said to the man, "Where did everyone go? Did they kick you out?" And the young man said no. "Then I won't kick you out either," the preacher said. "You may go now, but sin no more."

Then the young man turned to the preacher and said, " 'Sin no more'? Fuck you, I haven't done anything wrong."

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

C.S. Lewis: Mere Christianity


Like a lot of people, I was first introduced to C.S. Lewis through his Narnia books, around the age of ten. I knew they had a basis in Lewis's Christianity, but it wasn't that aspect of the work that interested me the most. It was the magic. When, a few years later (I was still really young), I started reading what I called Lewis's "specifically religious" books, I liked them a lot, and I still like them -- because Lewis's writing style is simple and fun and he's always got smart analogies -- but they certainly weren't as inspiring. This is a good example of how something indirect (fairy tales in this case) can be more effective than something that's direct (Christian apologies). If being a Christian were like being in Narnia, who wouldn't want to convert? But if being a Christian is the life described in Mere Christianity, one might say "no thanks."

When I first read Mere Christianity as an early teen, I certainly considered myself a Christian. I'm not sure I recognized much of an alternative to Christianity then. It's been a long time, so I don't recall my exact experience reading it, but I think I remember agreeing with him for the most part and wondering where he got his info for other parts. The second time I read Mere Christianity a larger handful of years later (maybe in my twenties) is around the time that I started to suspect that maybe I'd never been a Christian after all. I do remember the experience the second reading: I kept saying to the book, "Really?"

So do I consider myself a Christian now? No. I base this answer on the fact that I don't seem to line up with any of the Christians I know, and there are many, of many varieties. At the same time, I can't find (too) much fault in what Jesus actually preached. But apparently being a Christian isn't simply following what Christ said. Apparently it's also following what Paul's epistles said about Jesus (and about everything else). And what Peter said. And what St. Augustine said. And what C.S. Lewis said.

As Lewis reports in the ten-years-later preface to his book, others have the same kinds of questions I do about the definition of Christianity. As they put it (in his paraphrase): "Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a Christian?" Lewis then goes on to say that he's not interested in who is most Christ-like, but who is a Christian according to the "original, obvious meaning" of the word. But this meaning is debatable too, his definition being "those who accept the Christian doctrine." Well, what's the Christian doctrine? This, of course, is where his book comes in.

The following is my response to Mere Christianity upon reading it the third time, in my mid-thirties. As you can see, before I even get past the preface, I already have problems. I don't have any sort of extremely focused argument I want to make so much as I just want to respond. There might be a good bit of "killing the father" here, but everyone should know that I will always love C.S. Lewis dearly. He helped me discover a larger world, and he's someone I will continue reading over and over again. This writing itself is proof of his power over me. I grabbed the book to quickly look one thing up and here I am, twelve thousand words later.