November 30, 2008

God's Intercession with Humanity

On a scale from one to ten—one representing the collective power, wisdom and knowledge of a dozen worms in a can, and ten representing the same attributes for God—where would human beings rank?

Think about it, because I want to make a point.

I’ve asked this question to numerous people of faith and they’ve replied with answers that average just north of two—not very high on the scale. If you concur with their assessment, let me suggest the following. After you’ve watered your lawn one afternoon, go outside once it's dark and peer into the grass with a flashlight. There you'll see an occasional glint of light, and when you do, stop. Upon closer inspection, you’ll see that you’ve discovered an earthworm. If you’re not squeamish about such things, grab it quickly and put it into a can. Don’t worry. It won’t bite.

Now here is the tricky part. Once you’ve gathered several earthworms, set the can down and preach the gospel to the residents inside. They are, after all, God’s creatures, too, and deserve to hear the good news.

What’s that you say? Worms don’t communicate with humans? That’s not necessarily the case. You can engage in a rudimentary form of communication with a worm and here’s how. Let’s say you want to express the need that they return underground. Look for another worm in the grass and simply step close to it. The vibration alone will alert the earthworm of potential danger and you’ll be amazed at how quickly it reenters the hole from which it emerged. And there you have it, a basic exchange of ideas, including: 1) a message delivered, 2) a message received, and 3) a response to the message.

I know what you’re thinking: That level of communication isn’t sufficient. Besides, worms have no idea what our world is like and therefore have no basis for understanding the gospel. How could we, for example, teach the Parable of the Good Samaritan, when they can’t possibly know about Samaritans, or a place called Jericho, or the concept of thievery?

If that was what you were thinking, then you’re absolutely right. But here’s where I make my point. If God is so great that compared to Him we’re worm-like in intelligence and glory, how much more difficult must it be for Him to tell us about His world and the thoughts of His heart?

There's a brilliant novel (one I’m still writing) entitled Exalted Man. The narrator of the story happens to be deceaced, which hasn't diminshed the fact that he's quite pompous. In one passage he’s asked the question: What’s it like, this reality where the dead exist?

And he answers this way.

I mean no disrespect, but I might as easily describe Newtonian physics to a water bug. If you’re familiar with holy script, you have, no doubt been tantalized by hints of an elegant calculus central to immortality. (Consider, for example, the opaque references to time found in the Bhagavad-gita or the Bible). But do not assume God’s written word—His talk of commandments and heavenly reward—to be a comprehensive, or even precise, rendering of truth. Compared to our Maker, mortals are little more intelligent or self-aware than so many cans of worms. How might anyone, therefore, expect the Great I Am to speak of eternity in a manner to be comprehended by human minds? To assume as much is both arrogant and outrageous, when in fact, God condescends and relates to mortals as a wise man to a litter of puppies.

Hear this and ponder its implications: The texts you deem sacred—the law of Moses and Christ’s gospel, Gautama’s eight-fold path and the suras of Muhammad—are primers only, a collection of ABC books, as it were. You will, at some point outside of time, be allowed a clearer view of the truth, but for now it’s far more complex than you can even imagine.
Is it possible that the words, “And God said, Let there be light: And there was light,” only hint at an elegant calculus behind a Big Bang? I’m not belittling the scriptures. In fact, there is nothing I’ve read (and I read a lot) that rings as true and inspiring to me as Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. Yet, doesn’t it make sense that if an infinitely wise creator spoke to us, He would—out of necessity—simplify the complex truths of His life, so that we, as spiritual kindergarteners, could understand them?

I have a good friend who recently complained to me about the teaching of evolution in schools. The complaint surprised me and I asked why he was so concerned. He said evolution was clearly erroneous, since the Bible said so. I told him that the Bible said no such thing, that in fact Genesis records God as saying: Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life. Did you catch that? God let the waters bring forth creatures. Doesn't that suggest a process-driven creation and not a single event?

I'll never forget my friend’s reaction. He said, “Well, if evolution is correct, why don’t we see elephants in trees?”

My heart stopped and I was overwhelmed with sadness. When we take the scriptures too literally and become apologists for their content, we twist our notions of truth into a tortured conformity that rejects so much of what can be useful. Once a dogmatic appeal to the Bible is seen as virtuous and an open mind as the devil's temptation, learning ends. It's a situation I wish we could avoid.

By the way, do you want to know how I replied to my friend? I said, “We do see elephants in trees…but we call them squirrels.”

November 29, 2008

Oh Say, What Is Truth?

Remember that scene in the movie A Few Good Men, where Jack Nicholson screams: “You can’t handle the truth!”? I love that line, because I suspect no truer phrase has ever been spoken.

There's a wonderful passage about truth in John Steinbeck’s book, Cannery Row, that I reflect upon from time to time. The passage is about Doc, a character modeled after Steinbeck’s real life best friend, Ed Ricketts. It goes like this:

Once when Doc was at the University of Chicago he had love trouble and he had worked too hard. He thought it would be nice to take a very long walk. He put on a little knapsack and he walked through Indiana and Kentucky and North Carolina and Georgia clear to Florida. He walked among farmers and mountain people, among the swamp people and fishermen. And everywhere people asked him why he was walking through the country.

Because he loved true things he tried to explain. He said he was nervous and besides he wanted to see the country, smell the ground and look at grass and birds and trees, to savor the country, and there was no other way to do it save on foot. And people didn’t like him for telling the truth. They scowled, or shook and tapped their heads, they laughed as though they knew it was a lie and they appreciated a liar. And some,
afraid for their daughters or their pigs, told him to move on, to get going, just not to stop near their place if he knew what was good for him.

And so he stopped trying to tell the truth. He said he was doing it on a bet—that he stood to win a hundred dollars. Everyone liked him then and believed him. They asked him in to dinner and gave him a bed and they put lunches up for him and wished him good luck and thought he was a hell of a fine fellow. Doc still loved true things but he knew it was not a general love and it could be a very dangerous mistress.
A dangerous mistress, indeed. Consider the varied meanings of truth. As far as I can tell, Plato was first to venture a definition for the word, which is essentially this: If what you say is what you think, you speak the truth. Notice that it includes intent as a necessary condition, which is how a court of law views the subject. A witness in a court case, for example, can offer truthful testimony that is incorrect. Therefore, truth may not be factual, according to this definition.

Science and logic, however, have attempted to take intent out of truth’s characterization and render it equal to fact. This can lead to confusion. Politicians, in particular, are remarkable for blurring the line between the two definitions in order to make a point. Saying, “Senator X didn’t tell the truth,” implies that a lie was told and that intentional deception was practiced. It bites deeper than saying, “Senator X was wrong,” even though the latter may be correct.

Another definition of truth—one of which I’m very fond—was proposed by William James. It’s the basis of his philosophy of pragmatism and is essentially this: If it works for you, it’s true. As you can see, this definition can allow truth to differ from individual to individual. Just because something works for you, doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for me.

This leads to the question of whether truth is absolute or relative to its context. This issue has been debated for hundreds of years as a topic related to the philosophy of ethics. The debate has focused on two main ethical systems (or standards of correct action). One of them—proposed by Emmanuel Kant—is referred to as Kantian Ethics. It stands firmly on the side of absolute truth, asserting the existence of categorical imperatives that should be followed at all times and in all places.

The other ethical system, Utilitarianism, was proposed by Jeremy Bentham and others, who went on to contribute much to the study of economics. This standard deems the correct course of action as that which provides the greatest good for the greatest number—a resulting calculus Bentham called utility.

The two systems can result in far different truths, not to mention alternative concepts of good and evil. For example, Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, Les Miserable, is at its core a critique of ethical ideals. Was Jean Valjean’s theft of a loaf of bread evil? It depends on whether you believe in categorical imperatives (e.g. God’s commandment against stealing) or if you feel it’s proper to weigh the value of feeding a starving family against a small loss to a shopkeeper. Most people of faith deem God’s commandments as absolute and say Kant’s ethical system is the appropriate measure of what is true, but if that’s what you think, allow me to muddy the waters.

Not long after God gave the Children of Israel the Ten Commandments, He led them into a Promised Land already inhabited by other tribes of people. There He commanded the Israelites to violate His earlier directives against killing and stealing. In other words, God ordered them to displace the inhabitants already living there, which often necessitated bloodshed. How do we reconcile that?

One view is that truth doesn’t change, but our ability to understand and follow it does. Here’s a case in point. In 1958 when my in-laws, Esther and Evan, decided to get married, they couldn’t—not where they lived in Utah. Though they had both served as missionaries for the church and were therefore deemed worthy to act as God’s ambassadors, they were prohibited from marrying each other in the temple they loved. Neither could they get married civilly by state authorities. Utah, at the time, enforced anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited Evan, a white man, from marrying Esther, an Asian-American woman. So contrary to the admonition of church leaders, they crossed into Colorado to exchange vows. Despite that inauspicious start, their marriage has been an example of tireless devotion to God and church. As husband and wife, they completed two more missions together and Evan, for his part, has fulfilled numerous church responsibilities that gave him responsibility over congregations that numbered in the thousands.

Were they wrong to get married?

Once, I asked a church leader that question and he replied, “Of course not.” He then spoke of the historical context behind Utah’s ban on race-mixing—a stance that was part of church policy even as the first pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley and began to establish a secular government. They were a people, he said, who were influenced by the bitterness of the civil war and shouldn’t be judged harshly for what may seem like bigoted notions today. Though he didn’t say as much, the implication was clear: Church members, at the time, were incapable of rising above personal prejudices to live as Jesus would have them.

Did truth change? Personally, I don’t think so, but what appears to have changed is the ability of people to follow it. This raises an interesting and important question: Are we living the highest law Christ intends for us?

November 28, 2008

A Goat Among the Flock

You’ve probably heard this before, but there are two kinds of Christians: the sheep and the goats. In case you’re wondering which camp you're in, let me propose a few simple sorting criteria.

  1. When they hear about angels hitch-hiking in the Nevada desert to warn travelers to stockpile food, sheep accept the account as one more weave in a beautiful tapestry that is both logical in design and perfect in symmetry. Goats, on the other hand, hear the same story and feel nothing—nothing except perhaps a little nausea.
  2. Sheep like to be led straightway into pastures of righteousness. And Goats? Well, let’s just say they’d rather meander there and know they’d made it on their own.
  3. Sheep hear the shepherd’s voice and immediately feel a connection to it. Goats hear a voice, too, but to them the message is mixed with white noise and public hysteria. They’re never quite sure if they’re feasting on the words of Christ or gorging on junk food.
  4. Sheep are unquestioningly loyal—that’s how they show their faith—but to goats the term "unquestioning loyalty" is an oxymoron. They believe that when people are truly loyal to a cause or creed, they’ll naturally inquire about its means or motives. And that’s how they show their faith.
  5. Sheep see the world in black and white, because they believe we’re ruled by clearly delineated moral imperatives. Goats, on the other hand, experience the world in various shades of gray. They’re tormented by weighty decisions, because they see in each choice, a conflict between two or more divine principals that, of necessity, must splinter like glass before fitting neatly into life’s framework.
Now, I’m going to make a confession. I’m a goat—there, I got it out. I’ve always been a goat and despite efforts otherwise, I’ll probably always be, but is that bad? I hope not. I’d like to think there’s enough love, compassion and empathy to leave a little room within the fold for folks like me. On the other hand, maybe I’m being hard on myself, because some of the people we admire most have been goats: non-conformists ready to battle conventional wisdom.

There you have it in the tiniest of nutshells, a debate that at one time raged within my heart. Should I force myself into the mold of an easy believer? You know what I mean: a person who can hear an obscure church doctrine for the first time and immediately bear testimony of it. Or do I allow myself to be thoughtful and inquiring, but risk being bludgeoned by accusations of faithlessness?

I became a Christian after attending an inspirational church conference for youth. Later that evening, while returning home with friends, the car we were traveling in suddenly went dead and refused to crank up. When the others left to call a wrecker, I remained in that broken-down car and thought about what I’d learned earlier in the day. Before I knew what was happening, I was talking aloud into the dark and telling God—or whoever was responsible—that somehow I felt clean and at peace. I remember pleading: Please, don’t let this feeling ever go away.

Then, almost inexplicably, God talked back. I didn’t hear anything with physical ears but I heard Him all the same. An hour went by like eternity trapped in a microdot, while I learned that God knew and loved me. Though He didn’t part the veil, He must have cracked it just a little, because I got some sense for the beauty of His world and that’s something I’ll never forget—even when doubts cross my mind. Which, by the way, is still a regular occurrence. In fact, even simple daily experiences cause me to walk paths of logic that lead me to new canyons of uncertainty, into which I take leaps of faith. But I’ve learned to accept these experiences—even embrace them—because today I recognize value in the process.

Drawing its wonder encapsulated
As from an apothecary’s jar,
The Word stretched me beyond horizons
To gave me a sense of God.
For what of Godliness
Lest it be unfettered,
Free of horizons constraining mortal men?
Its good news changed this mortal’s course
(Having swallowed—but being swallowed in return)
And hearing Him who was more than philosopher say,
“Know the truth,”
I have searched.
But the search continues.
For somewhere unbound and never resting,
The Father to my soul urges onward,
To walk the path free of mortal constraints,
To be like Him:
Unfettered and unchained.
There’s a reason for spiritual struggles. Something astounding happens when we struggle—we overcome. So God provides us with challenges that enable us to grow. Sometimes the challenges He allows in our lives are spiritual in nature—a clouded meaning, a seeming inconsistency, an enigma—but by searching for truth and meaning, we grow and prepare ourselves to walk along a path free of mortal constraints. Although the gift of belief is wonderful, I’m thankful for my doubts and uncertainty. They remind me that my search continues.

So, like most goats, I’m comfortable with inquiry, but people who are uneasy with it often ask, “What of child-like faith? Shouldn’t we be as unquestioning as children?” My response to them is this: Child-like faith is important—in fact, I believe it’s crucial to spiritual development—but there’s nothing in this world more curious and inquiring as children.

We used to call Matthew (our second boy) our Pokey Little Puppy for a couple of reasons: first, that was the title of his favorite book and second, we were constantly trying to get him to hurry. Then on one of those rare days when time was less scarce than gold, I decided to follow him. I let him determine our pace and agenda and he taught me something I’d completely forgotten. With virtually every step he took, there seemed to be a gazillion things that beckoned to him, that quizzed him and asked him to speculate a prior chain of events. To him the world was remarkable, so naturally he got distracted. For a while that day, I saw things through his eyes and became fascinated again with a world I had come to believe I’d figured out.

There’s an extraordinary song by the Irish rock bank, U2, that summarizes what I’m saying. In the song, Bono says, obviously referring to Christ:
You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains.
You carried the cross
And my shame.
You know I believe it,
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
There’s so much in this world we’re duty-bound to search out and find—so much goodness we must create. And achieving these ends demands we question the status quo and dream of what is possible.

November 27, 2008

The Individualized Nature of God's Callings.

Late in the summer of 1967 my family and I happened upon a place, not far from where we lived in Southcentral Alaska, that became one of our favorite camping spots. It was just outside the town of Seward, in a region that had been devastated by the Good Friday earthquake three years earlier. In fact, the area’s most obvious feature was a waterfall that had first appeared suddenly in 1964, after the earthquake moved a small creek miles from its former location.

Today the creek tumbles thirty feet off a near-vertical bluff into the ocean, but at one time it meandered through town and opened its mouth wide to the bay. Like most Alaskan rivers, it was full of salmon on their way to fulfill one of nature’s most remarkable callings. Salmon, of course, spend most of their lives in the ocean, but return to the shallow freshwater streams of their birth to spawn and die.

So that first summer, as we camped beside the tumbling water, salmon born before the earthquake were returning to an altered version of their birthplace. We watched with interest that soon turned to shock, because the fish came leaping out of the surf—trying with all their might to reach the top of the bluff—but they only landed upon rocks and were washed back into the sea. Unable to resist their procreative instinct, they continued to brave the distance, until their broken bodies littered the shore and became food to seals, eagles, and gulls.

I tell you this, because the memory has been a reminder to me of how at times I’ve felt akin to those salmon: like a fish out of water, yearning for home. If you understand the feeling, then you’ll know I’m not referring to home as a physical location but a condition of the heart. It’s that object of great longing the poet, John Haines, calls “a sense of place.”

We all have this sense, I’m sure of it. If it weren’t so, we would spend far less time trying to articulate the notion. Much of the world’s great literature—from the Odyssey to Green Eggs and Ham—describes, in some way, the journey the brave among us take in search of a better place.

Plato called this sense our daemon and a life spent yielding to its quiet influence eudaemonism. To the Romans it was our genius, and to Christians in the Middle Ages it was our guardian angel. The latter two terms have acquired other meanings today, but at one time they echoed the notion James Hillman coined as “the soul’s code,” because they describe the unique mix of ideals and purpose imbued within each of us.

The scriptures give us a hint as to the source of each soul’s code. Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, says: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate…. (And) whom he did predestinate, them he also called:” Since God foreknew all His children, it stands to reason that He extended specific callings to each of us.

M. Scott Peck concurs with this view. In A World Waiting to be Born he says:
...God calls us human beings—whether skeptics or believers, whether Christian or not—to certain, often very specific activities. Furthermore, since God relates—(or)covenants—with us as individuals, so this matter of calling is utterly individualized.
Therein lies the principal difference between the Mosaic Law and Christ's gospel, and what is most difficult about the latter. While Moses' demands are clear and focused on behavior, Christ wants more than clean hands. He seeks faith without swagger, courage to accept highly personalized callings and, because each of us must walk a separate path, a willingness to embrace uncertainty.

The Intersection of Faith and Calling

The gospel seems to value free will so completely that it defines what is white and what is black, then leaves to the individual a strip of gray. If you feel uncomfortable with this idea, think of the differences between the Mosaic Law and Christ’s gospel. While Leviticus specifies a mind-boggling number of sins and their remedies, Jesus tells us: “On…two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

His reference, of course, is to our requirements to love God and to love our neighbors. Though His direction is elegant in its simplicity, it is also open to interpretation. The manner by which we must show our love is, at best, suggestive. In contrast, Moses explains our duty to the mire-bound ox with far more clarity. The implications of this are numerous, but one is worth mentioning here: For moral people life’s dilemmas can have as much to do with expediency as choices between good and evil.

Consider how complicated our lives can be. We have responsibilities to teach and nurture our families. We owe our employers honest work for honest pay. In addition, we’re asked to help meet the needs of the church and our communities—to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. And though we may hold these values inviolate and wish never to compromise them, we must continually decide how much of one to sacrifice for the others.

Adam and Eve understood this tension. Their most notable choice was between two proper, but mutually exclusive options: obedience to a specific commandment versus the advancement of humankind. We speak of our first parents as having experienced problems different than our own, but isn’t it possible that their dilemma was an archetype, one we live too, albeit less obviously? Divine inspiration, therefore, must guide us through the gray.

At times, however, we fail in this regard. Thoreau once wrote: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” (From Civil Disobedience) I believe this happens when God extends sacred, specific callings that we lack the courage to accept. To me it’s no coincidence that some men suffer a midlife crisis at precisely the time they could be of most use to God. Perhaps the reason for this is summarized by Allan Bloom in the Closing of the American Mind:

Man is a being who must take his orientation by his possible perfection.... As it now stands, students have powerful images of what a perfect body is and pursue it incessantly. But...they no longer have any image of a perfect soul and hence do not long to have one. They do not even imagine that there is such a thing.

Many of life’s problems could be avoided through the kind of self-introspection and prayer that leads to acceptance of God’s quiet callings. Emerson once said in a way that resonates with Plato’s concept of eudaemonism:
Accept the place the divine providence has found for you…. Great men have always done so…betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being…. That which each can do best, none but his maker can teach him. (From Self Reliance)

I can only hope that my eyes, too, will someday open to life’s possibilities, but the fact is I’ve spent most of my adulthood ignoring the place divine providence found for me. God has told me at various times and by various means, that He’s unhappy with me. I’m certain, for example, that He never liked my previous choice of occupation. How else do you explain my career, which includes employment at several institutions that no longer even exist?

This is true: I was at Drexel when it went belly-up, Salomon when its involvement in a scandal left it a shell of itself, and UBS when it lost a billion dollars in speculative trades and became the target of a hostile takeover. Knowing my track record, a friend recently revealed to me his investment strategy. What he does, apparently, is short the stock of any company that invites me in to interview.

Although I’ve been involved in more corporate restructurings and strategic realignments than you can shake a stick at, the greater evidence of misdirection in my life is the subtle manner in which God has sometimes told me in prayer: “Alan, this isn’t you.”

I admit that I’ve replied with my share of fist shaking. At times I’ve demanded to know: “So what do You want me to do—flip burgers for a living?” Then seeing a chance to turn lemons into lemonade—to mine from the silver lining hidden behind dark clouds—I compose myself and suggest a way He might be of help.

“I’d really be good,” I say, “as the host of my own TV fishing show.”

The result of this communion is a lesson learned. You won’t see Angler Al on the tube any day soon. Pleading with God to bless this and bless that is tantamount to kicking the ball into His court. More importantly, He can’t give me a Saturday morning slot on ESPN without taking it away from one of His other children (a good ‘ole bubba, too, who can tell a good crankbait when he sees one and yells, “yeehaw” with enthusiasm). So my prayers have gained effectiveness only after I learned to ask that greatest of all queries: What manner of man ought I be?

Yet the task of hearing and following the Lord’s instruction isn’t easy. Recently, after years of ignoring my own soul’s code, I decided it was time for a simpler life and a leap of faith. I quit my job and began to write full time, confident that a way would be prepared for me to make a living at it. Unfortunately I’m the only person in the world who recognizes genius in the effort. So today I’m still unsure of heaven’s purpose for me, but what can I do? Our most difficult life choices occur at the intersection where faith and a sense of calling come together.

Faith is Impossible without Uncertainty

I come from a religious tradition where members, as a matter of habit rather than prescription, repeat like a mantra these words: I know the church is true. The degree to which the words are repeated reflects both the greatest strength and weakness of the church, and it is a phrase I have never used.

Here’s why:

  1. I don’t understand what people mean by it—after all, it contains three complex words (know, church and true) that should be defined in their context.
  2. Once the phrase is uttered, its speaker seems compelled to seek evidence supporting the view, forcing each new life experience to fit within the presumed truth’s framework.
  3. Truth (the noun form of the adjective true) is often more complicated than a human can comprehend.
  4. Most of all, defining a belief as true is disingenuous and undermines the value of faith.
Do we understand that faith has far more to do with doubt as doubt’s opposite? A prerequisite to everything we hold dear—choice and free will among them—is uncertainty. Yet, here we are, full of answers (answers searching for the right applications). We assure one another that we know this and we know that and cheapen the exhilaration that accompanies a leap of faith.

The Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard, spent a lifetime trying to understand and live principals of faith, but claimed he never accomplished the latter task. He understood that to be what he called a knight of faith, one had to be infinitely resigned to God’s will despite a lack of perfect knowledge.

By giving each of us a unique path, with only general instructions and no detailed roadmap, God demands a difficult task, but I’m convinced that He understands our struggle and occasionally whispers to us out of life's white noise. Several years ago, an acquaintance of mine went through a painful divorce, and wanting to relay a message of hope to him, I wrote a letter that included the following.
Why do we love our children? Is it because they spring from the womb with Olympic medals on their chests, Harvard diplomas in their hands, and the chiseled good looks of Venus or Adonis? Obviously not, for children are born with indiscrete faces and no means of survival beyond an instinct for growth. So we love our children despite their weaknesses. Or do we?

Let me tell you a secret. When Matthew was born, Lori and I looked at each other and in one spontaneous voice whispered, “He looks like Jabba the Hut!” With his pressed face, frog-like legs, and catfish-skin belly, he really looked like a Star Wars’ character. Yet this endeared him to us even more.

The fact is we love our children, not despite their weaknesses, but because they are weak. We love them because they start from square one, yet they possess a divine heritage and a craving to learn that draws them to horizons beyond our sight. If getting there is half the fun, much of salvation’s joy must be in watching our children prepare for it and joining them in that miraculous journey.

Now, consider this question: Why does God love us? Is it because we’re each His equal? Certainly not, for none of us even approach His stature. Perhaps God loves us because we too begin at square one, yet we possess a great promise and the potential to be like Him.

During the inexplicable moments when I feel God’s presence most vividly, a picture enters my mind. I see a smiling Father kneeling on the floor along one side of a spacious room. His arms are spread wide and He entreats me to take awkward, first steps toward Him.

And when I stumble (as I am prone to do) gaining His forgiveness is invariably easier than forgiving myself. Occasionally, I’d rather remain on the floor to pout and be punished with thoughts of my enormous stupidity. But He tells me to put away the excess baggage, to rise up and attempt again, to take a few more steps—though awkward they may be—toward Him.
When Christ spoke of the power contained in a particle of faith, could it be that He wasn’t pointing to the mustard seed at all, but the treasure-filled sea of uncertainty surrounding it? That’s what I like to believe, because by embracing uncertainty and admitting that we don’t know, we take the first step toward true learning.

Faith and Dreams

My son, Aaron, wants to be a musician. Notions of rhythm and harmony, lyric and tempo invade his every thought. Knowing something about the lives of most musicians, I find myself hoping that he’ll enjoy his future poverty. Yet, even as I consider his long-term prospects, I'm awed by his desire and dedication. The upshot is this: While children invest in dreams, most adults have already spent theirs.

Dreams, by the way, are closely akin to faith. I’m not referring to our day-time musings or even our night-time fantasies. I’m talking about our sense for who we can become. This sense is important, because the alternatives to righteous dreams are horrific. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine anything as frightening as a human being with evil intent—unless it’s the mass of humanity with no intent at all.

We often think of good and evil as being various points on the same continuum—that the less evil we commit, the more good we are—but this is a subtle deception. Good and evil are wholly separate and only by making a conscious choice for good do we place ourselves on its continuum. People who refuse to take any stance at all fall into a state of spiritual limbo. The Lord calls them lukewarm and “spews them out of his mouth.”

People without dreams are slaves to popular opinion and as shifting as the tide. Some of the greatest atrocities of this world were aided and abetted—in fact, rendered possible—by individuals whose greatest sin was arguably their resistance to ponder the morality of their acts. Think of Pontius Pilate, who could see no reason to condemn our Savior, but allowed him to be crucified anyway.

So we must be on constant vigil to ensure our dreams don’t go stale, that we retain our childhood craving for growth and rise above the plateaus we reach as adults. Occasionally, we discover that a past dream had been wrong. We may have started out searching for objects of value, but gained only money and position instead. So we must backtrack, take inventory of ourselves and begin a new journey over uncertain paths.

This is clearly within our grasp. As William Faulkner said when he accepted the Nobel Prize for literature:

I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure, that when the last ding dong of doom has clanged and sounded on the last worthless rock hanging tide-less in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice still talking. But I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not simply endure, he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul: a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.

Child-like Faith

To me there are at least two contrasting claims to faith. None of us fall neatly into one camp or the other, but the contrast is illuminating. One of these I’ll call Old Testament Faith—the kind that the children of Israel had. Their convictions were marked by fear and trembling, because they saw our judge as vengeful and jealous, as a being who would have us preoccupied with hell and the devil. Because they were afraid of making offense, they fabricated complex consistencies—the kind that Emerson once referred to as the “hobgoblin of a tiny mind.” To them, anything that wasn’t explicitly right was wrong and so they locked their hearts to things they didn’t understand.

In contrast to this there is also Child-Like Faith. We might assume that, since children believe everything their parents say, child-like faith may infer an obligation to believe. However, I’d like to think there’s more to it than that.

For example, do you remember that as children we began life without fear? We thought we were immortal and that death was of no consequence. We’d slip on our PF Flyers, jump from stumps and fence posts, run like the wind and feel like masters of the universe. We didn’t pretend so much as be the kind-hearted heroes we watched on television. But over time, we learned about falls, scoldings, embarrassment, and other discomforting things. And that’s when we began to fear.

Similarly, children are not frightened by God. Not until our talk about hell and damnation begins to foment in their minds do they fear Christ’s judgment. Until that time they are motivated primarily out of love. Perhaps they know our Savior as He truly is: the judge of all mankind who asked forgiveness even for the men who nailed Him to a cross. While the Pharisee within us shudders to think of a final judgment, how much goodness could we create if we were more fully motivated by Christ’s love?

Another aspect of a child’s faith is complete honesty. When my youngest boy, Aaron, was small, his intellectual honesty extended even to his prayers. He’d tell God about his day—ramble on and on about his likes and dislikes, his weaknesses and strengths—until one of us would whisper, “You can stop, now.” When Aaron prayed, I was often tempted to open my eyes. God seemed so close, I was sure He was sitting on our sofa.

In much the same way, children do not rationalize sin away. Even when they stray, they don’t make excuses. Have you ever listened to a child try to convince a parent to buy sweets? They don’t say, “Ten out of twelve dentists claim this is good for your teeth.” It takes them a while before they justify, cajole and haggle like an adult. All they say is, “But I want it.” Their honesty reminds me of Huckleberry Finn who, after attempting to pray, said:

I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing ... but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie—I found that out.
Although we know that honesty is important, sometimes an adult’s most impressive rationalizations are invented during prayer. These are conversations that begin with, “If you’ll only do this once for me,” or “I can’t help how I feel,” or “If I don’t do it, someone else will.” Sometimes we attempt to make deals with God over sacred things. We’re like the Israelites, who occasionally avoided spiritual obligations by obedience to man-made protocol. Christ said of them: “They draweth nigh...with their mouth and honoureth...with their lips; but their heart is far from me.” He would rather our communication be like a child’s: “yea, yea; nea, nea.” For there is nothing more difficult to cleanse than the heart of a dishonest human being.

Finally there’s that aspect of childhood faith of which I'm continually amazed: a child’s curiosity. Despite their natural tendency to believe our every utterance, children still ask, “But why?” This isn’t because they doubt us, but because they crave greater understanding. As dutiful parents, we try not to let the incessant questions bother us. We realize that children have an instinct—a necessary and even divine instinct—to grow and learn, but we can’t always answer their questions. Sometimes they don’t make sense.

Other times, the problem is more complex. We might know the answer to an inquiry, but we can’t explain it in a way a child can understand. If a five-year old asks why the sky is blue, we might relate a few facts about the wave-particle duality of light and how each wavelength corresponds to a different perception of color, but that would only confuse a child. So we reply with something like this: God created all kinds of things for our joy and pleasure. While this is a fine—even truthful—answer, we hope the child will have progressed beyond it by the time he or she is taking a physics final in high school.

Is there a corollary here regarding our relationship with God? I believe so. In short, child-like faith requires trust, openness, complete honesty and an insatiable—almost fearless—hunger for truth. It’s the kind of faith that admits there is much we don’t understand and draws us into a loving, nurturing relationship with God. Nevertheless, while searching for truth, we shouldn’t always expect immediate answers. Sometimes our questions don’t make sense. At other times, God will say in no uncertain terms, that we'll have to dig further and mature a bit before we’re ready for an explanation. Yet, if we persist, the answers come. As Christ said, “Ask, and it shall be given you.” And notice this: He never once told us to be content with the status quo.

Consistent with this notion children are passionate about growth. In part, this passion is due to the realization that there is much they don’t know, an admission more powerful than any one individual's collected wisdom. That simple acknowledgement is the beginning of true learning and prevents the honest from being deceived by broadly-held, but incorrect, assumptions about the world.

November 26, 2008

The Basis of the Higher Law

The Judeo-Christian Ethic, as a phrase, should be relegated to the place it once occupied as a legal term describing Western notions of justice and legal precedence. I say this, because each time the phrase is used in reference to religious beliefs, it inevitably gets defined by the Ten Commandments, which are far more Judeo than they are Christian. While this statement is an observation and not meant as a critique of religious systems, it’s clear that Christ used the Mosaic tradition as a starting-off point for a far more ambitious ideal that little resembles the context from which it emerged.

Consider the Sermon on the Mount. An important implication of this defining discourse is its claim that there are higher and lesser laws. In Matthew 5, Jesus contrasts the Mosaic Law to His gospel in five telling passages that play upon the same theme. For example, in verses 21 and 22, we read:
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:
But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.
The meaning is clear. While the Law of Moses has its demands, Jesus’ gospel requires another, arguably higher, standard altogether. According to the passage, it’s not good enough that we refrain from murder, but we must also bridle our angry thoughts and displays, as well. By enumerating the principal difference between the two laws, Jesus establishes three kinds of actions.
  • Actions that are inconsistent with either standard—let’s call this, “The Law of the Jungle”
  • Actions that are consistent with the Law of Moses
  • Actions that are consistent with the gospel of Jesus
Notice how these standards differ by Christ’s own reckoning:

To assume that the Ten Commandments are all we are required to observe misses the point of Christ’s most salient discourse. As CS Lewis says in, The Problem of Pain:
To disobey your proper law (i.e., the law God makes for a being such as you) means to find yourself obeying one of God’s lower laws: e.g. if, when walking on slippery pavement, you neglect the law of Prudence, you suddenly find yourself obeying the law of gravitation.
The implication is extraordinarily important and scarcely ever noted. During our times of honest introspection, it’s not enough to ask: Am I obedient? Human beings have no choice but to be obedient. The more useful question is: To what am I being obedient, a lower or higher law?