Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The rules

I know that I'm a funny person when it comes to rules. One time, I was playing Taboo with some friends, and I insisted we divide into two teams and arrange our seating so that we would match the diagram in the rules. Unfortunately, the diagram is absent in the most recent edition. I get teased for my fastidious observance of rules in games. Really, I deserve it; most people play Taboo to socialize, not to win. I honestly don't mind playing Taboo and not keeping score. I don't even feel a need for teams. (If we don't have teams, I am not limited to yelling only half the time.)

From Fire hydrators

When setting up a croquet course, most people place the double wickets at either end of the field a scant two or three feet apart. The United States Croquet Association 9-Wicket Croquet Rules mandate a six foot spacing. Now, croquet is a fun game because you're out on the lawn, it's a pleasant summer evening, lightning bugs are coming out, you're joking around with your friends and smoking your pipes and drinking mint juleps, and it's fun to hit balls with mallets. In this case, the rules makes the game a little more fun, though; if the wickets at the turning stake are too close together, it's too easy to go through them, hit the turning stake, and then return through them, all in one turn. If the wickets are as far apart as the USCA suggests, it's easier for players to interfere with each other and knock someone's ball back into the pond, and that's what makes the game fun, on top of the lovely atmosphere.

When Mom taught me how to play Monopoly, she put $500 on the center of the board; we'd add money to the pot when paying taxes or when assessed for property repairs. Whoever landed on Free Parking got the loot and another $500 was put in the center. This seems like a fun idea, it's fun to get a lot of money.

It ruined the game.

We'd go around the board and no one would go bankrupt, for hours and hours, because there was a constant infusion of cash into the economy. The bank ran out of money, so whoever was richest would make counterfeit $10,000 notes and deposit 20 $500 bills back in the bank as a stimulus package. With rules like that, Grandma Joyce* called the game Monotony.

We can pick the rules we want when we're children playing games, but adults appreciate good rules; I didn't care about the evil $500 on Free Parking house rule until I was a teenager. The weight of knowing God merits taking the rules seriously. Carl Sagan says, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." "God exists" is the most extraordinary claim that could be made.

One cannot pose the question, "Does God exist?" as "If God were to exist, what would confirm that?" One must think in terms of "Is God the simplest explanation for reality as it is?"

I'm often asked by believing friends what it would take for me to believe. I normally say that witnessing an exorcism or an unexplainable phenomenon, say, an amputee regenerating a limb, would convince me. I say that because I want to be polite and give a straight answer. If I were to think I saw such a thing, though, I honestly don't know what impact that would have on me.

We know that people are prone to delusion, we tend to believe what we want to believe. People pull hoaxes. People misremember things. We're very frail.

To say that "God exists" is the simplest explanation for strange things is...would God be simpler than our feeblemindedness? Knowing God might well be an essentially impossible task. "Who then can be saved?"

I spent a long time in agonizing anxiety about my standing before God, because no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't make God feel real to me, I couldn't make myself believe. I always thought that the most important rule was "Believe in God." If I could get that one, I could relate to God, and if I couldn't, I'd be forsaken.

The idea that God is difficult to know can be either bitter or sweet. If God is worth knowing, he'd have to give us a lot of help in knowing him, or he'd have to not be terribly troubled by honest unbelief. Knowing, knowing if God exists and knowing facts about God, the rules of knowing are rigid, like the rules for Monopoly; if we relax these rules, conversation about God becomes circular and futile. However, if the sort of God we're looking for is gracious and loving, a good father, he would care more about us than the rules of knowing; actually knowing God would be more like playing Taboo.

Truly relating to God would be strikingly similar to cheating at croquet.

*Grandma Joyce is from Alabama. One time while visiting her, I was playing solitaire (with real playing cards, this was in the olden days). She asked me what I was doing. "I'm playing solitaire." She replied, "That looks like a rather solitary game! Hah!"

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Elf Jesus

I used to play Dungeons and Dragons. I have trouble bringing myself to playing it now because D&D tends to bring out certain irritating personalities. People like me pore over the rule books to make sure that everything is being done correctly. Most people don't read the rules all the way through before playing Monopoly; I willingly have paid $20 for a 300 page book of rules. I'm insufferable.

Even worse than rules lawyers are munchkins, people who try to win D&D by poring over the rule books looking for loopholes. This is idiotic because D&D can't be won, it goes on and on, week after week, until the gaming group falls apart. In any group, there's at least one of these chumps.

Lightfoot the Halfling Rogue and Grok'thahal the Half-Orc Barbarian and Iskander the Human Cleric have interesting relationships and problems and frailties and backstories (somehow, each one is an orphan), these three are trying to tell an interesting story, but they're stuck playing with Bob the Elf Jesus who just wants to roll dice, kill everything, and get a lot of make-believe treasure.

One of the explanations for why God isn't more evident in the world is that he's leaving us alone to tell our own story. He works in mysterious ways or watches us from a distance because if he were to interfere, he'd ruin our free will, he'd be like Bob the Elf Jesus who just charges into the kobold den, dual wielding battleaxes and somehow casting fireball at the same time, while Lightfoot and Grok'thahal are hatching a plan and Iskander is expressing the pathos of his emotional crises. Jesus isn't like Bob the Elf Jesus.

I think there's something to this explanation, honestly. We need to live in an orderly nature that has rules for our actions to be meaningful. We need to be able to sin to be redeemed, there had to be a tree of knowledge of good and evil in the garden.

Using the Elf Jesus problem to explain why the world is the way it is now, why we don't see big, verifiable miracles, is flatly unbiblical. God, evidently, didn't mind eroding Paul's free will with blinding light. He didn't seem to care too much about the Egyptian army's free will when they were drowned in the Red Sea. Jesus didn't seem to think that feeding the 5,000 would spoil them and make them irresponsible and lazy.

There are 1.2 billion people who are malnourished. If God were to drop manna from heaven all over the world, that might impede my free will, but he'd save 35,000 kids from dying today. I wouldn't mind my free will being a little degraded in this manner. If God were to just drop manna on Zimbabwe, there would still be plenty of needy people for the world community to practice showing compassion to.

Saying that God doesn't do big miracles because he doesn't want to squelch our free will is a cruel pat answer, like telling cancer patients they need to pray harder, or telling someone crippled by worry that their problem isn't the thing that's worrying them, it's their lack of trust in God.

I suppose that God could be real and good, even given the state the world is in. The Elf Jesus explanation is simplistic, unbiblical, and cruel, though. God's quietness is a serious problem that deserves more sober consideration. We're prone to look at the exodus from Egypt or the stories of the judges or the story of Jesus. What are the scriptural explanations for God's apparent absence in the time of slavery before the exodus, or the chaos between the judges, or the Greco-Roman occupation?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

I'm sorry that I'm obsessed with proving people wrong

There are two main apologetics strategies. One is to provide a rational defense of the faith, the other is to apologize for how terrible Christians are, in hopes that people would want to become Christians, themselves, as a result. I exclusively use techniques from the second category.

I blame no one but myself for this: I was the most obnoxious creationist that I've ever met, and I'm very sorry if you've ever been bored by my droning on about llamas and giraffes, or if I've offended you with my ignorance of biology (I've not studied it since seventh grade).

I was very interested in dinosaurs when I was a small child, and, as all young earth creationists know, dinosaurs are a Trojan horse for evolutionist propaganda. However, at age four, I was given a copy of The Great Dinosaur Mystery and The Bible, which shows, among other things, that a plesiosaur was caught by Japanese fishermen in the 1970's. Thus inoculated against evolutionary falsehood, I studied creationism, hoping to be able to prove wrong those evolutionists.

So, I harassed my evolutionist neighbor a few doors down, and her dad, and my history of science class in my junior year of college and a friend's roommate who majored in environmental science. I told them all about how 'ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny' is bunk—this has been well established for a long time, and it's a shame that these things are repeated in textbooks today, but that doesn't mean evolution's wrong. I speculated wildly about probabilities of abiogenesis. I was willfully ignorant of how radiometric dating actually works.

I don't mean to throw any creationist friends under the bus by what I'm writing here, I honestly don't mean to implicitly accuse them of anything. I own what I'm saying here for myself. I was a brat.

I think that some creationists get into the scuffles that they do out of genuine concern for others' souls. I might have had some element of that in me, but I really wanted to be right about something that the majority got wrong.

I was prideful and conceited to think that I just needed to read a couple of books, and I would be able to say something meaningful to mainstream science. I didn't stop there; I thought that I, personally, would be able to shake up mainstream science by calling it out for being deceptive—I thought I had that measure of honesty with myself, that I could be that persuasive. I thought that evolutionists just thought what they did out of delusion. I was wrong.

I still want to be right, to show up a lot of people that I disagree with; I just want to be right about different things now. I shouldn't have that attitude, that's wrong, and I'm sorry. Please forgive me.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Take the baby out of the tub first

Christian agnosticism isn't simply about being very ambivalent about whether God exists.

Superstition is rampant in American Christianity, and I don't just mean finding the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich. When people speak too confidently about knowing God's will regarding a specific situation, this is idolatry. Superstitious Christians are generally too quick to try to discern God's will in car wrecks and coincidences; this, too, is idolatry.

Superstitious Christians are inclined to see mundane problems as having a supernatural source. Even if this were true, it would be prideful to say that we could have some understanding of this.

I remember clearly asking a priest for advice about my problems with anxiety. 'It sounds spiritual.' he said. That's what I'd thought, too.

I thought that if I would learn to root my identity in God's love for me, if I meditated on God's grace that frees me from guilt, if Jesus could heal me, I would be free. Spirituality did help me, a lot, but not completely. As near as I can tell, my problems with anxiety have a strong physiological component. I don't blame anyone else for this, I don't blame myself, but I do think that my religious beliefs kept me from getting medical help with anxiety because looking for supernatural answers obscured the problem.

I have friends who deal with difficult problems, worse than anything I've faced myself. They get pat answers to their problems from Christians. My friends are told that Jesus wouldn't employ their coping mechanisms. They are told not to worry, and then my friends have to worry about worrying and dread what Jesus thinks of their feelings. When things don't go right for my friends, Job's comforters assume my friends' lack of trust in God is the problem. (Meanwhile, these same hypocrites blame their own problems on Satan.) Abuse victims shouldn't be told that they just need to think about how much God loves them.

Of course, I don't think these pat answers and misidentification of real-world problems are rooted in an orthodox understanding of Christianity. I've seen them less in traditional churches, and I've heard less nonsense by believers with good theological training.

The Christian agnostic method of acknowledging the good in Christian teaching, while being slow to say that one thing or another says much about God, separates Christianity from superstition.