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Monday, July 04, 2005

A Christian With Questions?

I recently took a test on an Internet website ( www.Beliefnet.com ) that was supposed to sort you into categories according to your beliefs about God*. Final scores ranked along a continuum from "Hardcore Skeptic" to Candidate for Clergy. I scored a 77 and was assigned to the category of "Questioning Believer". At first I disagreed with the score. I'm actually a pretty conservative Christian, so I expected to match up with more traditional Christians in the scoring. Evidently, I’m more out of the mainstream than I had thought.

Part of the problem may have been that some of the questions on the "test" made definite assumptions about what beliefs a "confident" believer might endorse. As it happens, many of these so-called mainstream beliefs are areas of legitimate disagreement between persons of various theological persuasions. Many nontraditional believers are quite confident even though they might choose a day other than Sunday to worship or believe that the soul is not inherently immortal. It’s a common weakness of tests that the test writers pre-conceptions inevitably come into play as the questions are designed. No tester could know, for instance, that, while I believe in angels, I do not believe they are disembodied "spirits", but rather flesh and blood creatures. There wasn’t a way to express that as a choice on the test.

As a result, when I visited the newsgroup for folks of my category, I found myself reading message after message asking "Why, God?" "Why is there suffering?" "Why did you let my baby die?" "I don’t understand." Post after post begged for answers. Each was looking for some reason that would explain their pain and make it go away. These were not believers who, like me, believe firmly in God, but poor battered souls who felt lost and, while they wanted to believe in God, couldn't match up a loving God with all the bad things that were happening to them and those they loved.

And, as I expected, there were as many posts from people (and predators) offering help. Reverend Doctor Theophus offered to guide one struggling soul if she’d just send along her e-mail address. He didn’t ask for the $19.95 at the time, but you could just hear it coming. Another attempted to explain how that you just had to persevere until you die and then you’ll be reincarnated and get to try again in another life to get it right. Another offered solace in science and evolution without explaining what "solace in science and evolution" offered. Yet another said you suffer so you can understand how bad it was for Jesus when he was here. Still another said it was all part of God’s "strange and fascinating" plan - like parents punishing their children. One said you have to have suffering or you wouldn’t be able to appreciate joy. I doubt the young lady who asked her question about suffering found much clarity in the cacophony of conflicting answers.

The truth is there are no easy answers. We spend our lives looking for the answers to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything else. In his novel, The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Addams claims the answer is "42". The problem is, as Addams points out, we still don’t know what the ultimate question is.

While I believe the universe follows natural laws, I’m not a deist. I don’t believe that just because the universe and everything in it obeys the laws of physics, that there is, then, no room for God. I also don't believe in magic, even though I believe in angels. Unlike many, I don’t believe they operate outside natural law, but then I don’t understand all natural law either. Angels may exist on other physical planes or in other dimensions. Physicists, in fact, have postulated parallel dimensions, each with a separate set of physical laws which exist right alongside of our own 3 dimensional universe. I don't understand exactly how that works, but the math seems pretty solid. Was the world created in 7 days or did it evolve over some 5 billion years? The thing is, I don't care. It was done on God's time. Holy writings can only describe what men think they know about God based on their experience, education and the society in which they lived. Scripture tells what they knew about God. Nothing more. The Bible is not a book of incantations, but a living document. Those who wrote it were his penmen, not his pen.

Then, we address the next question. Does God know me, personally or did he just get things rolling an go off and leave us unattended? I'm convinced, for myself, that he does know me as an individual. If you postulate that God is a creature who is infinite, then he has plenty of himself available to pay some attention to me. Does the idea of God make sense? I think so. Nothing is more possible than that some sort of vast active benign intelligence exists out there and wants to exercise His creative energy by making planets, stars and people. Then why suffering? Let me ask you something. How do you create a creature with the ability to choose - one with total free will - especially if you plan to turn that creature loose in the universe without the danger of its wrecking everything.

Answer -just the way He did. Confine the creature to a single planet. Allow that creature to grow and learn from his own mistakes, greed and selfishness, then at the end of each life, preserve that person's spirit/knowledge/being in some way and resurrect him or her at the end of the whole vast experiment. Let each choose with the full light of his or her experience on Earth. Let each examine the way that lying, the lust for power and greed, all inherently lead to death and misery.

That's how you create a race of people who can be entrusted to live forever. That's how you grow sons and daughters of God. Then you wipe away all trace of the world as it was. Fire works well for that. Or maybe you let the bad guys go on and blow themselves up. If you leave the place full of selfish evil people how long do you think it will last before someone punches the big red button.

If you are a God of space and time, you could even return those saved from the dark Earth to the beginning of Earth. Back to the Garden and the New Earth as it was and let them change history. The Fall could be as though it never was. The vast evil that came after would be obliterated and all this horror will be as though it had never been. No one will ever have suffered, died, wept or hurt. No one’s baby will have died. No one would ever be tortured, murdered, starved or degraded. Evil will be as though it had never been.

Is that what will happen? I don't know, but it would be a merciful solution to the problem of evil. All these things are possible. We can already dimly conceive of the science that could make this possible (cloning, downloading brain patterns for storage, time travel, hyperspace travel, matter transporting, etc.). Maybe heaven has a spaceport at the end of a wormhole that connects somewhere near here. Why does it have to be some foggy place with harps where we float around like ghosts forever or worse yet, get sent back here over and over till we get it right. Reincarnation is only slightly less cruel than the idea that there will be some colossal barbecue where a vindictive God chicken fries people forever. That would be really cruel of God. If God’s like that, then the devil is right!

Ultimately we must ask, "Is God even out there?" To that I’d have to answer, "Well, why not?" We can already conceive of creatures of vast antiquity and overarching intelligence far beyond our understanding. Captains Kirk, Picard, Janeway and Archer meet them every week on Star Trek. We already believe in shadows of God, but we ignore the evidence of God Himself. Carl Sagan in one of his last books, "Contact", argued that if there was a God he would show himself. Then he arranged for his main character to meet some super powerful aliens who wound up sending her back with no proof. When she asked them why they wouldn't show themselves, their only excuse was, "That's how we've always done it." How lame! At least God's excuse is that he wants to give us eternal life and there's no other way to do it.

So did evil have to exist for us to be immortal and sinless? Does it have to exist forever in order for there to be continued goodness by contrast? To the second question I would say "No!" The devil would like that to be true, but it's not. To the first question, I would answer, "I don’t know, but that’s the way it’s looking right now." We know what careful, unvarying procedures it requires to, say, create a complex substance like plastic or artificial diamonds. Interfere with that process and the substance does not form. We understand well how new ideas, great philosophies and humanitarian reforms spring from lives touched by sorrow, trial and great effort. Would civil rights have risen when it did without the lessons we learned about inhumanity when our fathers visited the camps at Auschwitz or without the great nonviolent protests of the 50's and 60's.

I think that God is big enough to have figured out how to make it all right in the end. In my own life, God is teaching me to so hate sin and evil that I am convinced that for the rest of eternity, I will never be tempted to elevate myself over any other person or creature. I believe that when this is all over, I will never feel the need to kill or steal or lie or hurt another creature. My walk with God has taught me that there is beauty and joy and happiness and that evil will not conquer good. I will, therefore, wait patiently for the end to come.

The stew is not yet fully cooked. Our society, however, rapidly approaches a boiling point at which mankind must make the great and final choice between good or evil. Then God will come, put a lid on it and pronounce it "Done!" What creed you believe in, whatever it is you think you know or don't know will not matter because you will recognize Him and understand that this was all as it had to be. Like the old hymn, we’ll understand it all bye and bye. And when we do we will all shout with one voice alongside the millions ransomed from all ages, "Heaven is cheap enough!"

Tom
(c) 2005

* The Beliefnet Score Sheet:
Hardcore Skeptic - But interested or you wouldn't be here!
Spiritual Dabbler - Open to spiritual matters but far from impressed
Active Spiritual Seeker - Spiritual but turned off by organized religion

Spiritual Straddler - One foot in traditional religion, one foot in free-form spirituality
Old-fashioned Seeker - Happy with my religion but searching for the right expression

Questioning Believer - You have doubts about the particulars but not the Big Stuff
Confident Believer - You have little doubt you’ve found the right path
Candidate for Clergy

1 comment:

Frank Romano said...

I like this. I am gooing to get on that web site and see where I sit. keep up the good work.
Frank