Friday, February 25, 2011

Love my What?!

Sam Harris has a PhD in neuroscience but he is best known as a member of they would probably proudly call the Unholy Trinity of "New Atheists" that include Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. This week I watched a Youtube video of Harris. And again it became apparent that Harris, as with his fellow anti-theists, really doesn't know his facts when it comes to theology, the history of religion or, apparently, the history of science. I mean, he actually said that if the Bible was a divine book, why didn't it say something about electricity? Really? And exactly how would one communicate that to a culture that didn't have the language, the foundation or the ability to utilize such advanced scientific knowledge? The ancient Egyptians knew about electric eels. The Greeks knew of static electricity. It was just a curiosity. It wasn't until the 18th century that research made progress. It took Ben Franklin to show that lightning was electricity and longer before people could use electricity for anything other than parlor tricks.

Part of Harris' problem is that, as he says in another video, he feels that religion is a failed science. He thinks that religion's basic function is to explain how the natural world works. He sees religion as in the same category as Rudyard Kipling's "Just So" stories, where we learn in charming bedtime story-fashion how the camel got his hump and the elephant his long trunk.

In fact, philosophy was mankind's attempt to explain the way the world worked. What was known as natural philosophy eventually evolved into science. Harris, like a lot of these so-called scientific critics, mistakenly thinks the whole Bible is like the first few chapters of Genesis, which is rather like thinking all Superman stories are about his origin. What Harris doesn't seem to notice is that, aside from saying that God created the world, the Bible really doesn't talk of the details of how. What religion is more interested in is the why, the purpose and meaning of creation and our proper relationship with it and its creator. If Harris had studied this subject more, he might know that.

And he'd know that the conflict between the religion and science is really quite recent. Throughout most of history they worked well together. Religion was the reason why people built cathedrals but engineering science is how they built them. Nobody saw that as a contradiction. The universe was created by the mind of God, we are created in his image so we should be able to understand and work out the principles behind creation. Many of the pioneers of science were clergy and religious lay people. It's still true. The United States is both one of the most religious and one of the most scientifically advanced countries on the earth. How does Harris account for that?

Sam Harris, raised in a secular Jewish home, said his criticism of religion arises out of the events of 9/11 and its aftermath. He sees religion as the cause of a lot of the grief in the world. Oddly enough, he has studied eastern religious practices and meditates. He says he shares the moral concerns of many religious people, he praises the Golden Rule, and says that he would be interested in learning how better to love one's neighbor. But he has also said that torturing a terrorism suspect should be viewed as collateral damage in fighting terrorists. More disturbing is his assertion that "some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them." Madeleine Bunting, columnist for the Guardian newspaper, wrote that this "sounds like exactly the kind of argument put forward by those who ran the Inquisition." And yet if he saw the contradiction in suggesting that rationalists were justified in using tactics that he condemned religious fanatics for employing, he didn't back down. In reply to the controversy, Harris wrote "the fact that belief determines behavior is what makes certain beliefs so dangerous."

You know, I really wish that belief did determine behavior. Because if it did, Muslims who claim to believe the Quran would only fight wars in self defense. They wouldn't kill non-combatants. Mohammed specifically told his soldiers not to kill women, children and the aged. And as for Christians, we would obey Jesus' command to love our enemies.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, "you have heard that it was said, 'you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Despite popular belief, nowhere in the Bible does it say "and hate your enemy." Jesus is adding popular sentiment to the command from Deuteronomy. Remember that he lived in an occupied country, under the none-too-gentle boot of the Roman Empire. One of his own disciples was a former Zealot, a group who dreamed of violently driving the Romans out of Judea. Like all who want justification of their own desire to take vengeance on others, they cherry-picked the Bible for verses that seemed to back them up, like Psalm 139 where the writer acknowledges feeling that God's enemies are his. And they ignored passages such as Exodus 23:4-5 and Proverbs 25:21-22, where we are told to return an enemy's escaped animals and to give food and drink to an enemy who is hungry or thirsty. They didn't think about the moral of the Book of Jonah: that God cares even for those who are enemies of him and his people. They turned a blind eye to the fact that Isaiah foresaw a time when all peoples will come together and live in peace on God's holy mountain. Still, no Old Testament passage concerning benevolence towards one's enemies goes as far as this one command from Jesus.

But can he mean it? Is this hyperbole, like his saying one should cut off one's hand if it causes one to sin? The problem with that interpretation is, as we've seen, Jesus never uses rhetoric or metaphor to water down ethical imperatives. So Jesus doesn't mean merely to treat your enemies nicely or civilly or fairly. He means "love your enemy."

To clarify, the Greek word used here is not the one for family affection or the one for friendship or the one for romantic love. It is agape, the same unconditional love that God has for us. We are not told to feel warm and fuzzy about our enemies. We're not told to moon over them or adore them. We aren't told to write our initials together and draw hearts around them. Those things are not the essence of love. They are the icing on the cake. They come when love is easy. But sometimes love is seen most clearly when we act on it while not really feeling like it. Ask any parent who has to say "no" to a teenager while she screams that she hates you. Ask anyone taking a family member to rehab after a yet another nasty relapse. Ask anyone caring for a spouse with Alzheimer's long after she's forgotten who he is. That's love.

Jesus is not asking us to feel a certain way about our enemies. Nor is he asking us to look away or do nothing when they do evil. That's enabling. What we are supposed to do is pray and work for their highest good.

It's tough but it's really the only way to bring real peace and reconciliation. We've tried everything else. Hating enemies doesn't bring peace, either to society or personally. Treating them badly just brings retaliation. Fighting them rarely brings real or lasting peace. And killing? Unless you kill all of them, and all their friends and relatives, you just make more enemies and deepen the hate. But we never seem to learn that. And we can't figure out why people hate and fight so much.

One reason is that we hate even more the idea of not hating and fighting. We hate giving up our right to hold a grudge or to get some of our own back. Anger, hating, self-pity can all feel paradoxically rather good. When you don't get justice, they're all you have. Even if they will end up poisoning you.

But Jesus says we have to rise above all that. If we are to be children of God, we must do as he does. He gives us this world, the sun and the rain, our lives, our gifts and the opportunity to use them to make this world a better place. And he does this despite the way we have repaid him, the awful things we've done to this world and the terrible ways we've used those gifts to scare and to scar each other.

Nor was this abstract to Jesus. He not only told us to love our enemies, he showed us. When he was arrested, Peter cut off the ear of one of his captors and Jesus healed the man. He asked God to forgive those who had just nailed him to the cross. He assured a criminal dying beside him that he would accept him into paradise. When he arose, he forgave those disciples who denied him, who ran away and who doubted his resurrection.

What Jesus did for us was an extraordinary act of love. And if we are truly followers of his, we should be willing to do the same. It is the spiritually mature thing to do. That's one way to translate the word rendered "perfect" in the Matthew 5:48. Another is "complete": "you will be complete, therefore, as your heavenly father is complete." The tense of the Greek is not so much a command as a promise. Put your trust in the God of love revealed in Jesus, follow him faithfully and you will become the kind of person who can love your enemy.

That's the kind of behavior that should follow from belief. And if it did, if Christians took this command as seriously as the ones we focus on more often and more publicly, think of the change it would make in the world. There are 2 billion people in this world who call themselves Christian. Imagine if we all, a third of the earth's population, made a real effort to love and forgive our enemies. Imagine the feuds and bad blood that could be put to rest. Imagine the energy and ingenuity freed up to concentrate on helping and healing people and communities. Imagine the atheists having to stick to the intellectual points of their arguments, rather than scoring cheap shots by bringing up all the times some Christian's behavior contradicted his professed beliefs. You don't hear many atheists go after the Amish or the Mennonites. It's not that they are perfect but they do go to extraordinary lengths to live according to their beliefs.

Christians are known these days for their positions on abortion and stem cells and gays, none of which Jesus mentioned. He did say that his disciples would be known for their love. It's easy to love those who love you, who agree with you, who treat you well. But we are commanded to love those who hate us, who disagree with us, who treat us badly. We are commanded to do as Jesus has done. That's an awfully high standard to be held to. But we live in a world where people do incredibly bad and hateful things, so much so that yesterday's horrible outrage is pushed out of the mind by today's. The only way to get the world's attention and make a point is to do incredibly good and loving things, especially to those who hate us. If we don't obey God in this, if we don't manifest the holy, forgiving, unconditionally loving Spirit of God in Christ, we are no better than those who deny his existence.

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