March 31, 2007

How Can You Know if Your Religion is Right?

I've been playing around on Yahoo! Answers and I thought my answer to the following question might be worth posting here.

Question:

How are you sure that your religion is right? There are many religions that all teach different things, and some people do not practice any religion at all. How can you be sure?

My Answer:

One of the most important criteria is that a religion has to make sense out of the world; it has to fit our observations and deepest intuitions about it. So, if it tells a historical tale, like the Book of Mormon does about the Americas, that had absolutely no archaeological, genetic, or documentary verification, then that would be a big strike against it. Or if it claims that the world is an illusion, like Buddhism, in spite of everything in your experience (and the actual behavior of Buddhists) indicating the contrary, then you'd have a big rational barrier to deal with. Or if, like Christian Science teaches, it insists that there is really no such thing as evil, in spite of all the horrors to be witnessed in the world, then you might conclude that the religion's founder was out of touch with the truth.

Important themes that any belief system must wrestle with are things like origins, purpose, morality, and destiny. A worldview needs to be able to answer questions like, "Where did it all come from?", "What are we?", "Why is there evil and suffering in the world?", "How should I live my life?", "Is there any meaning to life?", and "What should we be striving for?"

Many belief systems either fail to give much of an answer to all of these or they give unsatisfactory ones. For instance, paganism deals quite a bit with the world itself, but isn't much good with explaining where the whole cosmos came from in the first place. Eastern religions don't give much traction for asking the "what are we" question, since there's supposedly not really any individuals to ask it ("we" are part of the One). Many systems cannot make much sense of why humans would find themselves in such a sorry state (i.e., there's no "fall of man" type of doctrine). And the issue of morality is a vague or even meaningless concept for others.

Atheists don't get off the hook simply by rejecting religion. They've also got to answer these questions. Unfortunately, most of their answers are "don't know," some form of raw speculation, or some kind of subjective construction. For instance, what caused the Big Bang and why the laws of physics are so finely tuned for life is just an invitation to a science fiction discussion for an atheist. And trying to ground an objective ethical system without any transcendent source for moral principles is something that most astute atheistic philosophers have abandoned. And, while not really a logical strike against atheism, answering the question, "What is the meaning of life?", with something like, "There isn't really one; we make up our own meaning," is very unsatisfactory to those who believe that the universal human drive to ask the question suggests that a real answer must exist. You might just as well tell a hungry man that food is a figment of his imagination and that he go satisfy his odd craving with whatever he sees lying around that looks interesting.

The bottom line is that I think Christianity is the best historic, philosophical, scientific, and intuitive fit for the world I find myself to inhabit. The fact that some of what it teaches does not fit my preferences is no strike against it, since I also understand that truth can sometimes be inconvenient and painful, but it generally works out for the best in the long run.

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March 11, 2007

Bridge to Terrible Theology

I watched a very touching movie this weekend called Bridge to Terabithia. Having not read the book, and judging strictly by the previews, I expected something entirely different than what the movie turned out to offer. (* Warning, spoilers ahead *) Instead of an adventurous romp in a magical land I got a hail of life's trials and lessons as seen through the eyes of an underprivileged, sensitive, preteen boy.

While my general impression of the movie was favorable, and it rated about a 9.5 on the wife's tearometer, I would say that they tried to pack in too many issues that time did not allow to be fully developed (for example, the relationship with the father). I have few issues with the various important themes explored in the story, but I do have concerns about the brief Christian elements that were included.

Now, I know that the author of the story is purported to be a Christian, and maybe the director of this film did not portray her nuanced message properly in the screen adaptation, so I am going to react only to what I saw presented in this movie. There are primarily two scenes with Christian dialog, other than the one where it is suggested that the boy, Jesse, goes to church only on Easter, and his friend, Leslie, who has never gone to church, asks to go with him on this occasion.

The first scene has Jesse, Leslie, and Jesse's younger sister, Maybell, in the back of a pickup truck riding home after the Easter service. The conversation turns to Jesus' crucifixion. Leslie, the non-Christian, observes that she finds the story of Jesus beautiful while Jesse, who is supposedly a believer, finds it disturbing. This is an interesting comment, which might theoretically be resolved by showing Leslie to be a true and open seeker, while Jesse is apathetic to his own religious tradition. As it stands, though, it looks more like a critique of Christians in general, who are either ignorant of their own faith or are so dogmatically literal about it that they lose the "mythic" beauty of it. Of course, someone like C.S. Lewis would point out that while the Christian story is factual, it still is a tale appreciable in the same way as the best pagan mythology.

The ugly dogmatism was further emphasized when Maybell pointed out that Leslie would go to hell when she died if she didn't believe in the Bible. Jesse is forced to give his uncomfortable and unconvincing assent to this proposition. This is an unfortunately framed presentation of the Gospel message to which Leslie has just lain herself open. Instead of clarifying what this Jesus, whom she finds so interesting, has done for her, Maybell and Jesse have made it appear as though God is qualifying persons for heaven or hell on mere technicalities.

Hell is about dying from your sins, not about failure to believe a story book. While that book may document the cure for your ailment, there is far more to the remedy than simply the documentation of it (notitia, assensus, and fiducia as the Reformers said). Even so, it is the ailment that kills and not the failure to receive the cure. One might just as well say that an African explorer has died from "not taking his quinine" rather than from his malaria. Who would put that on the death certificate?

Of course, these are just nominal Christian children in this story, so one might say that their dialog was fairly realistic. Leslie's response to this, however, was not atypical of what might be heard from any given adult unbeliever. Says she, "I seriously do not think God goes around damning people to hell. He's too busy running all this!" By "this" she means the world, racing by her, which she stretches her arms wide to embrace.

"Too busy?" Does this mean He's too busy to send anyone to heaven too? Whether God does or does not damn people, this is really no objection at all. Even my young son voiced the immediate rebuttal to this idea in that very theater: "God can super-multitask!"

"Too busy!" What a small view so many people have of God. Bertrand Russell believed that God would surely not be interested in our insignificant little corner of the cosmos. Bill Maher believes that it's arrogant to think that God has the time and inclination to listen to your petty, "laundry list" prayers. Rabbi Harold Kushner (of When Bad Things Happen to Good People fame) believes that God would like to help us out but He just doesn't have that kind of power. It is no wonder that people are not compelled by the idea of God. Those who are not pleased with the god whom they have remade in their own images are unimpressed by the petty humanistic god of their own small imaginations.

This conversation ties back later in the movie when Leslie suffers a fatal accident. Jesse is devastated by the news, but more than that, he is concerned for her eternal fate. In a highly emotional scene, he shares his fear with his father who says (to the best of my recollection), "Son, I don’t know much about God’s ways, but I do know this: there is no way God would send that sweet little girl to hell."

Now, the word "sweet" may or may not have actually been said (I can't seem to confirm this), but I think it is at least implied in what Jesse's father was trying to express. And sweet she was; in fact, the whole story hinged upon Leslie's unique character and what it brought to the lives of those around her. Who in that theater would want something so awful for her? Indeed, it was bad enough that God should take her away at all.

But she was not the only child in the story, and many of them were not so sweet at all, including one other (not so) "little girl" who was the bane of Leslie and Jesse's school days. What would Jesse's father have to say about an untimely death of one of these schoolyard bullies? Is it simply being "little" that makes him so sure of Leslie's fate or is it her "sweetness?"

To be honest, Christian theologians are divided over the fate of children. This is because there is not much direct discussion about this kind of thing in Scripture. Consequently, doctrines must be inferred by means of indirect statements and the application of systematic theology. For this reason, those from different theological traditions (e.g., Arminian vs. Calvinist) have come to different conclusions on this, though it is interesting that the same conclusion is often reached from different angles. Many conclude some sort of blanket dispensation for those too young to have yet digested the concepts of sin and responsibility, i.e., before they have begun to personally own their sin-debt. And there are other compelling ideas about this, but this is not where I'd like to take this discussion.

Regardless of the beliefs pertaining to the fate of children who die, none of the Christian responses include the idea that it is simply the "sweet" (good) children who make it to heaven. If good and bad were the keys to one's destiny as a child, then why not also for the adult? If a child can be held accountable for her misdeeds, then surely an adult can as well. The problem is that biblical Christianity is very down on the idea of "earning" your salvation or simply having your goodness outweigh your badness. Even the Roman Catholic Church, which is most accused of teaching a works-based salvation, does not believe that apart from Christ you can win your way into the kingdom. Working your own way to "salvation" or "nirvana" or "higher planes" seems to be the implicit doctrine of every religion except Christianity.

In the Christian model, Christ, and the atonement for the sin you have and will commit, is the essential ingredient. Canvasing over your moral crimes with a generally pleasant demeanor and the occasional good deed does no more for you in God's eyes than it would in a judge's eyes if you were being tried for civil crimes. Just try robbing a bank and then telling the jury (assuming you are caught) that you are an otherwise good parent, spouse, and citizen, then see what that buys you.

The problem with good deeds is that you can really only count an action righteous if the consequence is positive and the motivation is right (among other considerations). But if you're not with the program, so to speak, then it's kind of hard to judge the conformity of any given act. For instance, if you think your job as a parent is to make a happy, trouble-free life for your kids, then you'll treat them differently than if you think culturing wisdom, humility, and virtue is the objective.

And if you're not "with the program," then how can your motivation be anything but deficient? If the point is to do all things for the glory of God and out of love for His moral law, then motivations generally reduce to something that look a lot like self-interest. Even when we believe we are doing charitable acts for others, which may indeed have some positive benefits, one may still question the motive for such deeds. For instance, we may be seeking to win approval from others, be investing in returned favors, earn brownie points with God, or just get an emotional high from doing such things. To repurpose an old Shakespeare quote, "There are more considerations in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are accounted for by your moral philosophy."

And what of this Leslie? Sure she refused (at least initially) to return evil in kind to her nemesis. But at one point she tells Jesse that she is nice simply because it is a unique way to cause aggravation (my paraphrase), not that we ought to "love our enemies" and let God handle the justice part. In fact, she and Jesse did eventually get their revenge, and fairly ruined the life of one bully.

And sure Leslie was a great friend to Jesse at a most difficult time in his life. But it wasn't so much that she helped him to deal with life itself as to lend him an escape from it into the imaginary land of her own making: Terabithia. Leslie may have made life a bit more pleasant for Jesse, but she did not redeem his soul or lead him to the glory of God. Indeed, God was no part of her concern at all beyond her earlier rebuke in the pickup truck.

It wasn't until after Leslie's death that Jesse finally began to show signs of stirring out of his childish slumber. The most touching scene of all was when Jesse finally reformed from viewing his younger sister as an annoying pest trying to intrude on his private adventures in Terabithia with Leslie. Jesse's redemption in this story lay in the beginnings of a departure from the self-absorption and escapism which Leslie only seemed to facilitate.

I admit that another Christian might come away from this movie with wholly different observations — it was a thematically diverse story, after all, and some abstract ideas and rich metaphors might surely be found within it (for example, one might appreciate Leslie's openness to the wonders of life beyond its flat apparent limitations and trials). I only meant to address these particular spiritual ideas contained in the story, as though they were meant to be seriously advanced by the filmmakers.

Some are gratified when Christian themes are sprinkled into a movie, thinking this to make it family-friendly or an opportunity for dialog. I would have preferred they left them entirely out of this story, and was left feeling rather uncomfortable in a theatre filled, most likely, with impressionable children and nominal Christians.

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Westminster Presbyterian Church Columbia, TN