Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Denny's and Cazbar and belief in God

When people go to Denny's, they pick out what they want to eat rather quickly, pancakes or Moons over my Hammy or a Grand Slam or what have you. Denny's is cheap and rather uniformly unpleasant.

I think that the nicest restaurant I've ever been to is Cazbar, on Charles Street, in Baltimore. It's a fancy Turkish restaurant. Before I went, I Googled for the proper etiquette for valet parking. I spent a little more time considering the menu there; the food was expensive, so I wanted to make sure I picked out the best things on the menu, the items I was most in the mood for. I'm glad I did. I recommend the mixed meze plate and the vegetable casserole.

I might pick up a board game on an impulse, but when I'm buying a new computer, I might take days to decide on the best machine I can afford.

Most of the time, people think about decisions and beliefs in terms of stacking up pros and cons and seeing which pile is higher; at least, that's what they think they're doing. Deciding takes effort, though, and they put more effort into deciding about things that are going to impact them more.

I don't know what to say when asked if I believe in God. Do I believe in God enough for what? I believe in God enough to hope that he's there. I believe in God enough to pray and smile at strangers and not use the F-word too much. I don't think that means much, because I think I'd do those things anyway, if God wasn't real. Do I believe in God enough to sing songs I don't really like that much? Yes. Do I believe in God enough to die for someone? I hope so. Do I believe in God enough to be a missionary in the jungle? No.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Invisible and ineffable

God doesn't seem real to me. I have had experiences with gas stations and monkeys and feelings and velcro and rice. I don't know that I've had an experience that could only have been an experience with God.

When I tell believers that I don't believe that God exists because I don't see sufficient evidence, they often talk about how God must be known by faith. I don't know what this means.

I think they mean that faith is halfway between belief and knowledge, where belief is what one thinks, and knowledge is justified true belief. I think they mean that we have some information to nudge us toward belief that God is there, but not enough to know for sure.

They've confused invisible with ineffable. God can be known certainly, the Bible says, but he must be known by faith. It's not like God is a little kid playing hide-and-seek, and we're supposed to look for him, and we can't see him, but we can see his shoes peeking out underneath the curtains. Instead, the problem of faith is that God could be completely obvious yet still impossible to relate to on our terms.

Orthodox theologians, in the tradition of St Gregory Palamas, talk about God's essence and his energies. God's essence is what we can not know, it is internal to God, it is how the members of the Trinity are united. The energies are how God interacts with the cosmos, and how we could, conceptually, know God for sure. God is ineffable in his essence, but knowable in his energies.

To say that we can't know for sure that God exists makes God either a wimp or a bully.

If God is real and good and loves us, he ought to let us know that so we could all exhale. Does God not want us to know that he's real? God can't be unknowable and good. I suppose that God could be real and knowable and that some people still wouldn't believe in him because they don't want to. However, I get angry when a believer meets a non-believer and, from the fact of their non-belief alone, assume they are either uninformed or dishonest. This understanding of God can't allow for honest doubters.

Some people say that God is real and good and loves us and he's not a bully, he's actually quite nice, so nice, in fact, that he keeps himself hidden from us so that we can be free to believe in him or not. This is on a par with believing that God can make a rock so heavy he can't lift it, or, in the formula preferred by Mr Andrews, this is as if God could make a burrito so hot it could burn the roof of his incorruptible mouth. This God could only be nice if knowing him were irrelevant.

One of the problems that I have in knowing if God is real is that I know how much I want God to be real. I want to know that I can live forever in heaven and that God will bring perfect peace to the world and that God loves me and gives me a name. I want to be free from worrying about my reputation and my success and my possessions and my self. The claims of hope that Christianity makes are so good it seems more likely to me that I would believe them because I want them to be true than because they're real. I compulsively second-guess myself. Maybe Lexapro will help with that, but I don't think it will. I think that if God's real, God, and only God, could make me rest in belief in him.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Prayer, the anthropic principle, fun, sin, vegetarianism, and Christian agnosticism

When I tell believing Christians that I don't believe that God exists, but that I still practice Christianity, they often tilt their heads or cross their eyes. I explain that, for example, I still pray. 'Who do you pray to?' is a question I get a lot. I suppose my prayers go the same place as my believing friends' prayers. If God's not real (and I think he's not), they go nowhere, and if he is (and I hope he is) then I'm sure he can hear mine and theirs without straining; God is the one who makes prayer work. If prayer depended on the strength of one's belief, no one's prayers would do any good. I admit that I don't pray as much as I used to and that it is a little painful now that I don't believe that God exists. Even so, prayer doesn't feel terribly different to me now than it did when I was a believer.

I know that it sounds like I'm talking out of both sides of my mouth. I'm confused. The thing that holds faith and doubt together for me is the sheer fun of Christianity.

Jesus mocks Pharisees and hangs out with little kids. The most beautiful songs of worship are bound together with horrible, vile, racist, infanticidal anger. Jonah runs from God and God keeps catching him, with a storm and a monster and heat and a bug.

I'm a scientist, I spend my workdays laboring slowly and methodically, a small mistake I made once set me back a year. I like how Christianity doesn't bother to make much sense. Even so, it doesn't make sense in a sad and beautiful and good way, in the sort of way that people listen to jazz for fun and not experimental music.

I practice Christianity because I want to. I think that's why most people who call themselves Christians do so; in one way or another, it makes them happier. This is why it confuses me when Christians do evangelism by trying to make a hard sell, running up to someone on the boardwalk and accusing them of unspeakable acts or leaving cartoon booklets as tips in a restaurant or nagging or yelling or pulling a bait-and-switch or going door to door like cultists or putting irritatingly cute bumper stickers on their cars.

Some people like to argue that God exists by the anthropic principle, that if certain fundamental properties of the universe were ever so slightly different, then life as we know it wouldn't exist. Finding God in finely tuned numbers says nothing about whether God is interested in us, and if he isn't, I suppose the feeling would be mutual on my part.

I'm a scientist, I've spent a third of my life in college, I make charts for fun, I play with supercomputers on Friday nights, and I can't work out the numbers to see if it's even the case that fine-tuning is so special. Should only people smarter than me be able to know for sure that God is there?

However, the real reason why I think the anthropic principle is bogus is that it's boring. If the most persuasive way to know that God exists is by doing physics calculations, then I'm going to tell Grandma that I love her by sending her a copy of my simulations code; I'm sure she'll be impressed.

I used to be an obnoxious evangelist, and then I was a nerdy evangelist. I quit both when I couldn't annoy or convince myself into belief. Even when I was a believing Christian, guilt and certainty weren't enough for me to follow Jesus.

Christianity is a word for how I want things to be, and I don't simply mean 'love' or 'peace'; I'm not using Christianity as an old-sounding word for modern intellectual hipster virtues. When I talk about Christianity, I mean the historically grounded theologically orthodox Christianity.

I want a new world with no thorns and disease, where the ground is no longer toil to till. I want a city with a stream that runs through it, the Tree of Life growing on the bank of the stream. I want the lion to lie down with the lamb. I want people from all ethnicities living in peace and singing songs to God in their own languages.

Although I'd prefer hell to be empty, I want a place for free people to run from God. I want to sing songs that I don't like with some people I don't like every week. I prefer organized religion to disorganized religion, because, even if Christianity was made up by nomads suffering from heat stroke and mirages, they came up with something better than I would on my own. My religion would involve a lot of puns and math and Danish philosophy and it would probably kill me. I like the parts of Christianity that I don't like, because all the parts I didn't like I found out weren't really Christian or weren't really bad, difficult, perhaps, but not bad.

I like judgmental religious people, but I'd rather they figure out who to blame for 35,000 kids dying every day from hunger and preventable disease, and who to blame when my little brother gets made fun of. I even want them to blame me when I'm doing something wrong, and maybe I'll do the right thing instead. I like to talk about sin and despair and hubris because I know they're real for me, and not talking about them won't make them go away.

I don't want a Christianity in which I can just say a prayer or show up on Sunday morning or not cuss and be okay; I don't want a watered-down Christianity. I want Christianity to be as hard as it is, with Jesus calling me to death and sacrifice because I know that the things that are killing me aren't worth living for. I want Jesus to make it as easy as he can, though, because I can't fix me myself.

Enthusiasm about Christianity isn't the same as knowing that God is real, it doesn't do nearly as much to help me sleep better at night, but I don't know what I'd rather be enthusiastic about. Television is boring.

I used to tell people that I'm a vegetarian because I'm opposed to American over-consumption and mistreatment of animals in factory farms, but now I think I'll just say that I like to eat plants.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Leather wrist cuffs, vegans, and Christian agnostics

I was recently at an art fair; there was a booth dedicated to leather wrist cuffs. That seems like a curiously specific type of accessory. I wonder if leather wrist bands are associated with a lifestyle.

I wish I had a lifestyle. I'm a geek, that's sort of a lifestyle, but it's not like someone schooled me in the art of geek. I wish I were cool enough to be a punk. I don't know where I'd go to get punk clothes, though. I'd like a tattoo, but I have commitment problems. I'd need to get new music.

I'm pretty sure these things are necessary to become a punk, but I don't think that they're sufficient. Is there some organization that I should contact that will tell me what I need to do to be a punk? I am going to drive around the art school on Friday night and see if I can find a group of punks hanging out on a street corner. Maybe they'll tell me what to do.

One time I was at a party. My friend Liz told our host's mom that she's a vegan. 'Vegan? What's that?' Liz explained that, like vegetarians, vegans eat no meat, but also no animal byproducts. For the next few minutes, the mom asked Liz about specifics, 'So, can you eat cheese?' 'No, that comes from milk, which is from cows.' 'What about nuts?' 'Yes, because those come from plants.' 'Eggs?' 'No.' 'Beans?' 'Yes.' And so on.

A little earlier that summer I had become a vegetarian and ever since then I've become ensnared in discussions similar to the one between Liz and the mom.

Not eating animals isn't complicated, but it's counter-cultural. The conversation between Liz and the mom wasn't so much to inform the mom about the technical details of veganism, it was how Liz expressed to the mom that veganism might be alien but it's not inaccessible.

When I first realized that I am agnostic, I was afraid that I'd have to change everything, I'd have to quit church altogether or become a Unitarian Universalist, or that I'd stop praying, and I kind of like praying. I have a big set of thick Bible reference books, and I'd have to find some unsuspecting Christian to foist them off on. I've been agnostic for two years and I still haven't started swearing profusely or having orgies or doing drugs. Sometimes I feel guilty about this, that I'm inauthentic, that I'm hampered by the cultural mores imprinted on me when I was growing up as a homeschooled conservative Christian. Then I remember that there's no one to tell me I can't act like a Christian if that's what makes me happy.