Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Faced with Injustice

While intellectuals bicker about the problem of evil, real people live out their lives daily plagued with poverty, malnutrition, exploitation, ... the list goes on. Sure, there's an intellectual game to be made of squaring the concept of an omnibenevolent God with the real state affairs on earth, but in the end, it's a mind game, an intellectual exercise. But injustice, that's real. Good people have crappy lives, and crappy people have great lives. Life is unfair. Karma does not pan out. The good, the innocent, the faithful suffer. What, as Christians, do we make of this? Job 21 and Job 24 have been on my mind these days. Essentially, Job is pissed, and rightly so. From his perspective, life sucks, and life seems to suck the most for good people. What, then, is the point in being righteous? In obeying God?

Job laments:
"Why does the Almighty not set times for judgment? Why must those who know him look in vain for such days? Men move boundary stones; they pasture flocks they have stolen. They drive away the orphan's donkey and take the widow's ox in pledge. They thrust the needy from the path and force all the poor of the land into hiding. Like wild donkeys in the desert, the poor go about their labor of foraging food; the wasteland provides food for their children. They gather fodder in the fields and glean in the vineyards of the wicked. Lacking clothes, they spend the night naked; they have nothing to cover themselves in the cold. They are drenched by mountain rains and hug the rocks for lack of shelter. The fatherless child is snatched from the breast; the infant of the poor is seized for a debt. Lacking clothes, they go about naked; they carry the sheaves, but still go hungry. They crush olives among the terraces; they tread the winepresses, yet suffer thirst. The groans of the dying rise from the city, and the souls of the wounded cry out for help. But God charges no one with wrongdoing." Job 24:1-12

This is a tough passage. This is the sort of passage that knocks me down, reminding me that my life is blessed in ways I don't think I'll ever fully appreciate. This is not the sort of passage that gets cross-stitched and hung on the wall, or sung with enthusiasm on a Sunday morning. This is the sort of passage we pass over, not understanding, not wanting to meditate on. But we should stop. We should pay attention. Job is being honest. Job is angry. Job recognizes that not only to some people get the shaft, but they work really hard, live righteous lives, and still God turns his face away from them. It's one thing to study justice, to study how the world should be. It's another thing to take an honest look at how the world really is.

For me, God embodies ultimate justice. Yet. Yet where is that justice here? If God were truly just, if He truly loved his children, if He really heard their petitions, the world would look much different. Wouldn't it? Like Job, we can look at the injustice that reigns on earth and we can be angry. We can be angry at God. When we're not angry, we're often defeated. We give up. What's the point in trying when I know I can't make a difference and I know that other people just don't care? Therein lies the danger.

What is God's response to Job? Who are you compared to me? I am God. Remember that. Who are you and who am I?

That's not the sort of response Job was looking for. He wanted God to fix things. He wanted God to bring justice. He wanted God to admit that things weren't right. But instead God gave him some major perspective. When I look at injustice, do I ever think to myself, God is God? He is the great I am, the Alpha, the Omega, the Almighty, the Majestic. Not hardly. But, maybe I should.

May my response be: "I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, 'Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?' Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, 'Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.' My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes." Job 42

This, of course, is not an acceptable answer to the world. But, it never is. Sometimes the right response is: yeah, life here is messed up. But hey, God is God. That's all I need to know. I'll obey Him. I will pursue justice. I will be aligned with the Victor.

More on this soon.

Friday, April 10, 2009

No regrets

[So to preface this post, I'll start with an apology. It's been awhile. What follows is something I jotted down today. I thought sharing them is better than nothing. So here you have it. It's not in my usual style. Just some unfinished thoughts.]

The other night I was asked a simple question, one that received an equally simple answer. One of my fellow students asked: if you were to come across irrefutable evidence that God does not exist, would you have any regrets about your life? No. The answer is simple, though explaining why is anything but. No, I would not regret believing, nor would I regret those aspects of my life which are directly attributable to this belief. Sure, I regret other things, but much of what I regret (and would regret) are the times where I have fallen short of what my belief requires. Of course, I might regret having held a false belief, but honestly, I am fairly certain that even that would not phase me much.

Why wouldn't I regret believing? Answering this question gets at the heart of what draws me to God. And though on some level it makes perfect sense to me, I'm not sure I can fully explain it. God changes people. God changes me. I am not me when I am in line with God. I am God's; I am God's beloved daughter. As such, I am loved. I matter. At the same time, I am nothing. I am worse than nothing. I am a nuisance. I am a leech, an ingrate. But I am loved. Being loved when you are nothing, when you are dwarfed by the majesty of the Almighty, being loved like that is life changing. And what's more, you matter to me now. You matter because you matter to God, because I must matter less to myself, because God teaches me how to love, how to be who I was made to be. If God was a delusion, then God was the delusion I needed to put my life into perspective. To relate better to you. And though I fail, daily, I am picked up. If it be not God who stands me up, at least I am standing. If I didn't believe God was picking me up again, I might not stand at all.

I have been abstract. Abstraction makes no sense, you say. So what do I mean? When you think of God you think of rules, of confinement, of obligation. When I think of God, I think of freedom. The cost of following God is real. But the reality is that the reward is greater. Even if heaven is a mere myth, the sort of freedom that comes with living a life a faith is great. It's not about rules, about going to Church or listening to the right music, or voting for the right politician, or passing out the most tracts. It's about grace. It's about being accepted for who you are. It's about bringing out your potential. It's about being a steward of your life, not a negligent owner. When I wake up, I am joyful. I have peace. I walk outside and my shoulders are not weighed down. I am not tethered to a job or a bad relationship or a mask. None of the stresses of the world matter to me, nor should they. If God isn't real, the stresses of the world should still be nothing. And that's just what they are. I need God. And even if I'm wrong, that need would not change. I am a mess. God puts me back together.

An opiate. That's what some people call it. I call it hope. grace. love. hallelujah.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Dating, dressing up, and the Church meat market

This post begins with a true story. I was sitting at Church last Sunday, alone, and a little dolled up in response to the What Not to Wear marathon my mom and I indulged in over winter break. I was pumped to spend some time with God, get my focus back, all that jazz. To make a long story short, a man thought it would be a good idea to pass me a note in the middle of the sermon asking me out on a date. I was caught off guard, and more than a little annoyed, but I did consider (for a moment) saying yes. He was awkward and not all that bright (from what I could gather of our pre-service chit chat), but I've been told by more than a few friends and family that I have to work on being more approachable and less judgmental, about dating that is. And then I remembered, the man passed me a note in the middle of the sermon. Even minus the creepy vibe and lame comments before church began, passing a note in the middle of my time with God earns you a big no. A quick question after the service might have earned a must-be-open-minded yes. When picking up a girl at church it's important to remember that she might be there for God and might find such a note more than a little inappropriate, and certainly not the mark of the sort of man she'd actually like to date...

The real question was, do I say no (and interrupt everyone else's focus), do I condone the note passing with one of my own, or do I shift in my seat awkwardly until the the service comes to a close? Pen please! To my dismay, he didn't have one. Wait, how did he write the note to begin with? Was this planned? Was he a church crasher? Well I found a pen and wrote back, sorry, I'm dating someone already (lies, during church, oh my). He managed to persevere, however, and wrote back a few minutes later (holding it up for all around me to see): do you have any sisters? Seriously?? Any guilt I had vanished then and there. Ridiculous. After my second no it wasn't much longer before he just got up and walked out with the sermon still in full gear. And I'm left wondering, what just happened? Am I at a bar? Or back in 5th grade? I'm bewildered.

I tell that story to make a few points. The first is this: it's not at all flattering, to me at least, to be asked out based purely on physical appearance. That's not my strong suit, to be sure, and it hasn't been a big problem. But even so, I've had my fair share of awkward moments like this. It's enough to start singing Knock Em Out. And it makes me doubt the advice of Stacey and Clinton. Come to think of it, it's awfully unfair that the pressure seems to always be on women to dress nicely and look our best. And I'll be honest, as awkward and unattractive as the culprit was last Sunday, if he had been someone who had gotten to know me, or if we were already somewhat friends, it would have been worth a shot. After all, at least then I would have known that he was interested for the right sort of reason. I'm not saying nothing can ever come out of a random number exchange, I'm just saying that it can be a real turn off. Though I suppose that if this had happened at a bar I would have been less weirded out, and I probably wouldn't have thought much of it at all. Anyway, there's no way this would happen to a man, certainly not at church. So my main complaint is that women, despite our mighty feminist gains, are still subject to creepy approaches, to being objectified, even in church. That annoys the crap out of me. Not new, I realize, but still. Ugh.

Now, I think my "even in church" clause is misleading. This brings me to my next complaint: the church is a meat market, especially youth and young adult groups. There is serious pressure in Christian circles to pair off and marry. What better place to shop for a mate than church? I was briefly involved in a Christian organization during college, and many of my cohort there are now either engaged or married. Some, I'd say they did the right thing. Others, well... I worry. The joke is that if you're dating, and if it's senior year, then the gal better get a ring sometime between Christmas and Valentine's Day, or the relationship has been a waste of precious time. The pressure to marry early is insane, and it makes it hard to be a genuine participant in a young adult gathering. If I go, will anyone really believe that I'm there just to make friends and have fellowship? Will the guys be measuring me up for my wife potential? Hint: my potential is low. That is, I have low "good Christian wife" potential, where my independence, sarcasm, and career ambitions (okay, this is a stretch, but I love my job/school, and won't easily give it up) are seen as threatening. Do I mind? Kind of. I mean, I mind in that the standards by which I'm measured (or that it feels like I'm measured) are outdated and not in line with what I really believe God has in store for many women. But I don't mind in the sense that I don't regret not having a ring on my finger from any of those guys, because any guy threatened by my independence is not the guy for me. But yeah, in the Church frustrations mount as the pressure rises and the standards just don't fit.

So what's a girl to do? Well, for starters I've made my feelings known to friends, family, and fellow church goers (well, at my old church). I think it's important that the new generation of Christian women rise up and speak up against traditional gender roles, and against the supposition that they must be in want of a husband and 2.5 children before the age of 30 (or at all). Believe it or not, there is a large number of deeply religious young women that are embracing the change I think we need. Sure, older generations frown and fuss, but we can be the start. Yes, yes the church is historically/currently patriarchal, and some say that's enough reason to ditch the religion all together. But I think it's better that women work within the church for change, if they still believe, because they need to be the ones to make the church a better place for their sisters, daughters and friends. It is possible to be true to your faith and maintain your equal worth in God's eyes and in the world. I think Jesus would be all for it. Remember Mary and Martha? Mary chose what was better by stopping the "woman's work" to spend time with the son of God. At church, women should feel like they are equals, like they aren't be objectified or being measured up. It only takes a few.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


I've recently seen the new movie Doubt at the theater, and it raised some interesting issues that I've already been thinking about. If you haven't yet seen the movie, my thoughts here might well spoil it, though the movie is less about plot (which is as much as given away by the trailer) as it is about the way in which the plot unfolds. I'm no movie buff on any account, but I thought Streep and Hoffman were brilliant. But what interests me is not the acting so much as the story itself, and the ensuing web of religion, authority, and a battle between doubt and certainty.

The storyline is straightforward. Streep, who plays a nun that is the principal of a Catholic school, suspects the priest (Hoffman) of abusing one of the students. One of his sermons puts her on guard, and various events raise her level of suspicion. What's brilliant about the story is not the sad tale of abuse (or suspected abuse), but rather Streep's reaction to it. She is a woman in a male dominated world (both within and outside of the Church). She has a fixed role in the Church hierarchy, and allusions are made to the incompetency of those above her. Streep's frustration at her position, and at her (seeming) powerlessness comes through strongly. How must it feel to be the protector of a group of children, to suspect they are in harm's way, and to have little means of recourse? Add to her frustration her faith. Within the Church, her role as a woman is limited. It's bad enough to be limited by societal norms, but it's even worse to worry that God has forbade you to act. Streep's character hints several times that the in the pursuit of wrong doing one takes a step away from God. And as the tension between Streep and Hoffman mounts, Streep sides with that pursuit over God saying: "I will step outside the church if that's what needs to be done, till the door should shut behind me! I will do what needs to be done, though I'm damned to Hell!"

The tension here is between her faith in a perceived religious role or duty and the (almost intuitionist) sense of what must be done, of what's right. For Streep, she would follow that moral sentiment even at the cost of her salvation. What's most striking here is that the problem is which side to choose and not why there are two sides at all. What is the role of a religion that comes apart from moral convictions? The agony that Streep portrays is her struggle over this, over what side she will choose, and at what cost. Of course, a larger question hovers in the background: oughtn't the two sides coincide? If they don't, shouldn't that suggest that we've gotten one or the other wrong? It's this question that has been on my mind a great deal, but as usual, only as a question with little progress towards an answer.

My favorite part of the movie, apart from Streep's seething confrontation with Hoffman towards the end, is the very last dialogue between Streep and a younger nun. Throughout the film the question of the priest's guilt was left open, and though it felt natural to side with Streep's character, there was no real resolution of the matter. What was most moving was that throughout the film Streep's character is unwavering in her certainty (or alleged certainty) of the priest's guilt. She seems to believe it as strongly as she believes in God Himself. Yet at the very end, after everyone else has in vain struggled with their own doubts, Streep cries out: "I have doubts. I have such doubts." If I cried in movies, I would have cried then. What does she doubt? My first thought was the most obvious, she doubts whether she did the right thing, for a number reasons. The priest might have been innocent. Or does she doubt whether more good came in the end. As a result of her actions, the priest was transferred (which I've been told, was the routine solution in such cases, a thought that makes me shiver) to a more prestigious post at a larger parish. Now not only is he climbing the latter, but he has no one watching over his shoulder, no one protecting the children as she did.

Her heartfelt confession to Sister James seemed to almost signal something greater, something more troubling. She doubts the Church, her role in it, its teachings. With the marginalization of women and the ignorant eye turned towards men's misdeeds, how could she revere it? Or does she doubt her faith, God, his existence or his goodness, or maybe his justice? In the pursuit of wrong doing, one takes a step away from God, she said. Isn't there truth in that? Either because that pursuit feels like you've stopped trusting God's provision, his goodness or his protection. You've taken matters into your own hands because no one else will, not even God. More troubling, you've come closer to evil, to sin. It's hard to commune with God when you are thrust into the middle of another's fallenness. She doubts. She, the unwavering, steady, bulwark of her school, of her parish. Even she doubts.

I should add here, since I neglected to mention it above, that the whole matter is further complicated by the tension between Streep and Hoffman's characters over political change within the church. The boy in question was the first African-American student, which marked the beginning of a crusade for change by the priest. He was charismatic and modern, and his friendship with the boy seemed to be goodwilled. He wanted the school to be more inviting, the Church looser. But Streep's world was black and white, and the grey middle ground he proposed both frightened her and aroused her suspcion. She may have struggled with her inferior role, but in the end, was it her rigidity and not the guilt of the priest that threatened to tear their world apart? All of it, great stuff.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Tyndale, a faith hero

I was pointed to this great article by HB over at CT. Here's a nice excerpt:
His ruling passion was a simple one: he wanted to render the defining texts of his age and culture—the Old and New Testaments—in an accurate English translation which even “the boy that driveth the plough” could grasp. And the fact that he eventually fulfilled this aim, and paid for it with his life, should be acknowledged more frequently by anybody who cares about freedom of expression.
Go check it out.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Called to do the irrational

Lately I've been thinking about the story of Abraham and Isaac. For those who are unfamiliar, or need a refresher, here's the story in the first part of Genesis 22 (emphasis mine):

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!"
"Here I am," he replied.

Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about."

Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, "Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you."

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, "Father?"
"Yes, my son?" Abraham replied.
"The fire and wood are here," Isaac said, "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?"

Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!"
"Here I am," he replied.

"Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, "On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided."

The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, "I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me."

The reason I bring this story up is because I want to highlight an important contrast, one I've been struggling with. Faith and reason do not seem to belong together. In fact, I don't think they can speak to each other at all. You can't honestly ground religious faith in rationality (including philosophical theology), nor can rationality exclude it. Something is amiss about comparing them. A blind person would not call a song yellow, nor would a deaf person say a painting is out of tune. The inapplicability of the one to the other does not mean that either is deficient in any meaningful sense. We don't say sight is deficient for not being able to hear a melody. Rather, we don't think hearing applies at all to our sense of sight. I think something like this may be going on with faith and reason, though saying this does give me pause.

Kill Isaac. Sacrifice him. This is what God commanded Abraham to do. Under no circumstance, short of some absurd utilitarian justification, could this ever be the morally right thing to do. God commanded Abraham to sin, but sinning is disobeying God. Nothing about that makes sense. No rationalization makes it okay for Abraham to kill Isaac, nor does it seem right for God to ask him to. Yet, strangely, I still believe that Abraham did as he should, even if what he should have done was not right. This is where I'm struggling. If God says φ, you φ. If φ is morally wrong, what does that make God? I realize that theologians have been thinking about this story for centuries, and yes, I plan on revisiting my favorite Christian existentialist soon, but I do think there's something to be said about puzzling this out on a personal level.

Part of my struggle has to do with, in general, squaring up my faith with stuff I encounter in philosophy. Philosophers worship reason, in a way. I hesitate. Reason is fantastic, but it can't be enough. You can't be complete if that is all you have. We've been talking about reasons for action in class quite a bit, and it worried me that people may not have a reason (independent of themselves) to do the morally right thing. What is that about? But on the other hand, something is missing from morality if it really boils down to what is rational for a person to do. And then there's this other dimension where both reason and morality are subordinate to faith, something totally unjustifiable yet simultaneously authoritative. You believe in what you do not see, and you act accordingly. What can that mean? Reason can't speak to this, for or against. It's a whole new dimension.

I like being reminded of Abraham and Isaac whenever I start rationalizing God. God says do this because ... x, y and z. God would only have commanded this for x reason, etc. Something is wrong about that. If God is anything like who we think he is, then he's way above whatever we could possibly comprehend. He says φ, I φ. There's something liberating about that, but scary at the same time. There's a deep level of trust there. That's what Abraham had, trust. Abraham didn't ask God how his sacrificing Isaac would bring the greatest aggregate utility to society, nor could Abraham will that every father sacrifice his son. Abraham trusted, and then what happened? God provided. There is something really cool about that, something I can't understand.

God didn't make Abraham kill Isaac. But God sacrficed his son. For us, for a bunch of selfish slackers. That is irrational. That is grace. Grace surpasses the right. Grace surpasses reason.

(excuse the ramblings today. mulling this all over is difficult. since it had been so long, I figured I'd take a few minutes to type out the thoughts, just so I don't completely fall out of habit --and this forces me to think more about it. some political philosophy soon!)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

New layout

So I may be toying with the layout/colors for the next few days. If white on black is hard to read, let me know, and I'll make it easier. I just wanted to somehow incorporate this picture I have (now in the title) of some mountains in the alps that were covered by clouds. It seemed fitting.