Monday, April 09, 2007

Two Views on God

There are two interesting email messages I have recently received that I wanted to post. The messages, while tragic, give what I think is an interesting, if not outright disturbing, 21st century view of God. Receiving these messages was strange, because I received an article last week from a friend that I felt was probably best commentary on God that I have ever read. Upon receiving it, I immediately planned on posting it on my blog. I think it provides a unique and interesting parallel to the concept of God outlined in the emails.

I’ll first post the two email messages (with names and locations removed, of course), and then the article.

Email # 1:

SUBJECT: Will you pray?

Some of you may have heard about the tragedy that our family is currently facing. My son-in-law, JOHN DOE, the husband of my daughter JANE DOE, had a freak accident on Tuesday, and is now in desperate need of your prayer support. JOHN is extremely asmatic and apparently very allergic to bees. He was stung while working on a car, and though there's a long horrible story of all that has occurred thereafter, he is currently on life support at A HOSPITAL, and the prognosis is very discouraging. However, we firmly believe in the power of prayer and are counting on you, our friends and family, to interceed on our behalf during this midnight hour.

Please pray for JANE as well, as she's 14 weeks pregnant with our first grandchild and is beside herself, needless to say.

Believing that The Great Physician still makes house calls and that He who raised Lazarus will also raise JOHN.


Email # 2:

SUBJECT: Graduation...

As many of you know, our son-in-law, JOHN DOE, the husband of our precious JANE DOE, experienced supernatural graduation on Friday morning, April 6 . Though we certainly will not pretend to understand God's timing during this dark and devastating hour, we trust Him and lean heavily upon Him for strength and comfort.

JOHN loved the Lord, treasured our daughter, adored his son, and was looking so forward to the arrival of our grandchild this fall. Having known and loved JOHN DOE, our lives will never be the same.

[Funeral information deleted]

Words can never convey our sincere thanks for your prayers and encouragement these past few days. We covet your continued intercession on our behalf.


Now, here is the article:

Rabbi Marc Gellman on Whether God Is Real
The debate about whether God is real misses the true nature of the question. Here's why.
MSNBC Article Link

By Marc Gellman
April 5, 2007

The recent theological disputation between Rick Warren and Sam Harris on whether God is real was wonderfully enlightening—but sadly was offered up without a verdict. Since I am both a professional religious guy and also have a doctorate in philosophy, I thought I might declare a winner in the spirit of the old Yiddish joke in which two disputants ask the rabbi to resolve their argument. After hearing the first man the rabbi says, "You are right." Then the second man protests and tells his side, after which the rabbi says, "You are right." The men go away puzzled and disappointed whereupon a third person complains to the rabbi, "They can't both be right." The rabbi looks at him and says, "You're right, too." So here is my verdict: Both Rick and Sam are right and wrong and if you think this is impossible ... you're right, too.

The problem with these debates is that they do not understand the nature of the question being asked. The French existentialist Gabriel Marcel in his book "The Mystery of Being" helpfully distinguished between two types of questions: problems and mysteries. Problems are questions about things outside of us that we lay siege to. When we answer them correctly they go away forever.

Once chemists thought that a mysterious substance called phlogiston caused combustion. Then in the 1770s Antoine Lavoisier conclusively proved that oxygen causes combustion, and nobody thought about phlogiston again. This is because the question of what causes combustion is a problem, not a mystery.

Mysteries are not questions we constitute (those are problems). Mysteries are, according to Marcel, questions within which we ourselves are constituted. Mysteries are not problems that have not yet been answered. "What is the cure for cancer?" is an unanswered problem, not a mystery, but the question of whether God is real or whether goodness is rewarded or whether there is a purpose to human existence or why do fools fall in love or who put the bop in the bop sh-bop sh-bop—these are all mysteries and they will not go away and they will always be important and they will always define us by the way we answer them with our lives and our hopes.

So both Pastor Warren and atheist Harris have erroneously come to believe that the question of whether God is real is just some problem that can be answered—like how far is it from New York to Cleveland? God cannot be proved with evidence that is outside of us. Said another way, the mystery of God is resolved by the answer we give to it with our life. If a person believes that all human beings are made in the image of God and thus deserve respect, then God is real for that person as the source of his or her transcendent duty to treat all people with love and respect. If, on the other atheist hand, people are just one of many species ruled by the survival of the fittest, then God does not exist for that person and neither does any transcendent duty to treat others with dignity. In this dispute, Sam is not wrong, he is just on the side of those who do not believe in the sanctity of life. Why they believe that others ought to be treated with dignity is not clear to Rick, and it is not clear to me, but I would not make the invidious case that atheists cannot be moral. Nor would I say that Sam is wrong. We might well be alone in a chaotic meaningless cosmos. I stand with Rick in responding to the mystery of meaning in the universe by affirming that I am not alone and that when I look into even Sam's eyes I cannot help but believe that I am looking at the image of God. Sam's response to the mystery of meaning is to try to hold onto the absolute moral judgments born of Rick's and my faith while not allowing the God who both birthed and sustained that moral truth. This, plus Sam's personal desire for a kind of rational spirituality, as well as the massive empirical evidence of religious altruism—which he admits—versus the admittedly thin record of well known atheistic altruism all leads me to believe that Sam Harris may well understand deep down that ditching God is not remotely like ditching Zeus.

As for my evangelical friend Rick Warren, I continue to pray that his faith becomes not less strong but less exclusivist. Perhaps I am, in fact, saved by the atoning death of Jesus, and perhaps I need to say that in order to be saved. I don't believe so, but I do not feel degraded or belittled by Rick's belief that I need to do so. What I believe, the way I respond to the mystery of God as I have learned it through Judaism, is that God did not give all the truth to just one faith. What I believe is that, "The righteous of all nations have a share in the World to Come." This means that I expect to see Rick and Sam there, but instead of continuing their debate, I expect them to be laughing and saying to each other, "Why didn't we listen to Gellman?"

Happy Passover to my Jewish readers.
Happy Easter to Rick and all my Christian friends.
And to Sam Harris, happy springtime.


Anonymous said...

That is truly an entertaining article although I don't agree with it. Of course you love it, because it supports many of your beliefs. It would be me saying that this snippet from Lewis' Mere Christianity is an amazing bit of writing that I find profound. "I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to." (Lewis 1952, pp. 43) This 'Apostle to the Skeptics' or 'Apologist to the Intellectuals' speaks to me, but I can't expect that it would make a profound impact on others. (Although I would always hope it would)

Scott said...

Lewis was a great Christian writer. Where he failed, in my opinion, was in his assumption that the Gospels are describing linear, chronological, historical events. That is clearly not the case, as nearly every biblical scholar on the planet will argue. If one takes the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels as literal, word-for-word transcripts of the historical Jesus's words, then yes, I would agree with Lewis's take in this quoted passage. However, I do not believe that Jesus ever made divine or messianic claims for himself. Those were post-crucifixion ideas superimposed upon the historical Jesus by his followers in the decades after his death. Jesus was primarily an alternate wisdom teacher. He almost certainly never made divine or messianic proclamations for himself. If he did, then I would argue he was, in fact, a lunatic.