Sunday, December 29, 2013

Don't Use Donuts

Not everyone I follow on Twitter or Facebook is a Christian. I follow certain comedians, science fiction websites and friends with various points of view. So sometimes I come across anti-religion posts. My policy is not to engage if the post merely doesn't like Christianity or religion. You are entitled to your own opinion. I may engage if the post asserts something that is not true, such as the idea that Jesus never existed, or that everything about him was plagiarized from other mythologies or that religion is the cause of most wars. You are not entitled to you own facts. The internet is already rife with a lot of false information and you can't intelligently discuss matters like religion if you are wildly misinformed. Oddly enough, virulent anti-theists, who generally put so much stock in facts, especially scientific facts, are often very wrong about the facts of religion, theology and even science itself. They are perfect illustrations of the scientifically-recognized phenomenon of reacting emotionally first and only then using the rational part of our brains to construct justifications for our gut feelings. Anti-theists are also adept at showing confirmation bias, which is where a person, confronted with facts that challenge his worldview, will nitpick it and, finding some minor discrepancy, reject the whole framework. They also operate from a seemingly standard set of stereotypes which leaves them unprepared to debate a Christian who does understand science, at least as much as an well-read layman can.

Recently a person who I otherwise respect posted the equivalent of an atheist Hallmark sentiment. It was in the form of a comic book page, in which a big sister (or possibly mother; the drawing is not very detailed) is explaining to a little boy that there is no life after death. And she uses the analogy of a donut. We don't break down in tears because we know that we shall finish the donut and there will be no more of it. We savor the donut. And so we should do the same with life. It is all the sweeter for being finite.

Generally, this is the kind of post that, having read, I scroll past without comment. No scientifically or historically verifiable fact is being asserted. But, as a writer, I also have problems with terrible metaphors. While all comparisons between categorically different things break down eventually, some metaphors have at their very heart a false equivalency that makes all but the most superficial of the similarities cited useless. And I think comparing life to a donut is a pretty facile exercise.

So I wrote in the comments, “To stay true to the metaphor, the boy should never be given another donut.” I mean, after all, that is the whole thrust of the comic strip: once life is over, there is no sequel. But you can always eat another donut. And we usually do. Heck, the things are sold in dozens! A better analogy would be the extinct Hostess Twinkie that Woody Harrelson's character is seeking in the movie Zombieland. Except the very presence of zombies messes with the “nothing follows death” moral of the strip.

There are other ways in which we could critique the donut/life metaphor. I presume the strip is written from an affluent first world perspective. What about those for whom life is not predominantly pleasant, like a donut? Those who are born under brutal dictatorships, for instance. Countries where warlords turn children into soldiers. Places where a rigid class system prevents those born in a lower caste from rising in society. Kids born into brothels with little chance of bettering themselves. Children sold into slavery, to work in fields or factories. People born with severe physical or mental handicaps that will limit their life choices. Life to these people is not at all like a “good to the last bite” donut. It is a barely tolerable gruel.

Even those who are given a donut can have it snatched from them by a bully. A murderer can take away the only life that atheists say that you get and, by their philosophy, you have no hope of meaningful justice. Even if your killer is imprisoned or executed, you would never know, let alone be able to take any pleasure from it.

Or what if someone knocks your donut out of your hand and it hits the ground so that to finish it means eating dirt? In other words, what if you are not killed but left horribly injured by an accident or an assault? What if an identity thief or a slanderer ruins your life? It's hard to savor that ruined donut.

Of course, as we said, the donut analogy, when properly thought through, actually allows for you to get another donut, a better one to replace the original one. Worse, it implies there is a donut maker! So I wonder how long this meme will circulate before some more objective atheist points out what a terrible parable it makes for their philosophy.

I have read other atheists opining that if we realized that this was the only life one gets that people would be nicer. Really? The only officially atheist countries in the world, the People's Republic of China, the Soviet Union and its satellite countries, have never been accused of being hotbeds of sweetness and light and the observance of human rights. In fact, if religion is the root of all evil, it is hard to explain why these countries in 1 century killed tens of millions more people than were killed in 20 centuries of Christianity. Granted, that's still not a great record for Christianity, whose founder explicitly told us to “turn the other cheek,” “put up the sword,” and “love your enemy,” but by comparison, it does seem to have drastically reduced the bloodshed that non-religious states otherwise display.

Atheists have objected to my using these verifiable facts but they have no compunction against comparing, say, the crime rates of the most religious Western country, the U.S., to those of other Western countries with lower proportions of religious observance. They particularly like Sweden, with 85% of the population claiming to be unbelievers. They have a very low homicide rate and closed 4 prisons this year due to lack of enough inmates. Admirers do not cite the 2009 European Union study that Sweden has one of the highest rates of reported rape in Europe, 4 times that of neighboring Denmark or Finland.

In fact, all the Scandinavian countries rank among the least religious countries in the world. They are also, along with all the 10 least religious countries, among the 40 countries in the world with the highest suicide rates. (Except for Vietnam, for which I could find no suicide rate.) A recent study found that while richer countries may report a greater amount of life satisfaction, they also have less religiosity and less sense of a meaningful life, which the researchers see as contributing to higher suicide rates. And these are people who think you only get one life, one donut, so to speak, and of the better-tasting First World kind. Yet they are willing to throw it away without finishing it.

The Gospel of John starts with “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people.” 

The term John uses, “logos,” meant a lot more to his original audience than the usual translation of "Word.".

To the Jews, Word in this context would mean the Word of God. But since “logos” also meant “reason,” it could mean God's Wisdom, by which he created the world and which is personified in Proverbs 8. Word and wisdom were equated 100 years before Jesus in the popular book the Wisdom of Solomon. In chapter 9, verse 2 of this apocryphal book, it reads, “O God of my fathers, and Lord of mercy, who has made all things by your word, and ordained man through your wisdom.” So God's Word by which he called the heavens and earth into existence and his Wisdom by which he shaped creation were seen as one and the same.

In 560 BC, a Greek philosopher named Heraclitus used the word “logos” to mean God's pattern, purpose and plan that gave order to the world. The Stoics took up this idea, that the Logos controlled everything. A Jewish philosopher, Philo, used the concept of the Logos to reconcile the wisdom of the Greeks with that of the Jews. The Logos was God's instrument in making the world and put his stamp on creation. The Logos gave men reason. The Logos served as intermediary between God and his creation.

So when John used the term in his gospel both Jews and Gentiles could understand what he was getting at. The Word, God's Wisdom, the pattern and purpose, the rhyme and reason for everything, was there in the beginning, was there with God and is in fact God. So far, nothing John has written would be controversial.

But then in verse 14, John writes, “And the Word became flesh.” What? God's Word, his Wisdom, the reason behind our creation, became one of us, a human being? How? And why? The how, John, last of the gospel writers, leaves to the synoptics, the earlier gospels. The why is what John is really interested in.

Of course, Jesus came to die for our sins. John covers that later in his gospel. But here, in the first chapter of his gospel, he says that, to all who received Jesus, “he gave power to become children of God.” Not just creatures, like the plants or animals, but his children. John will get to a fuller explanation of this later, when Jesus talks of being born again or anew. John would agree with those who say that "the Son of God became a man so that men could become sons of God." He became human so we human beings could be transformed into children of God and have the same intimate loving relationship with God that Jesus does. In atheist-speak, that's like being adopted by the donut maker! The enjoyment never has to end.

Another reason for Christ's incarnation is to make God known. If you want to know what God is really like, you only have to look at Jesus. In him we see “his glory, the glory of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.” Glory was an important value in the ancient world. The Hebrew term for “glory” came from a word meaning “heavy” or “having weight” or “worthiness.” The Greek word for “glory” means “reputation.” Jesus shows the worthiness of God. He restores his reputation as not only a just God but a loving and merciful and gracious God. If you read enough of the Old Testament, God often comes off as very angry. It's kind of like seeing a friend on a day when her two-year-olds are being very disobedient and destructive. Of course, seeing her in that context gives you a different opinion of her than you would have seeing her tending her child's skinned knee or comforting a frightened child. A lot of the Old Testament shows God on a bad day when his people are fighting and bullying each other and not listening to his authority.

The two qualities that John focuses on in particular are truth and grace. The truth is reality, both the good and the bad. We don't always want to hear the truth but you need to if you want to know how things really stand and what you're up against. I have seen patient's families lie to their sick relative because they didn't want to upset them. But the patient knows things are not all right. Not knowing what is wrong or precisely how serious it is causes uncertainty and anxiety. The patient cannot make good decisions if he doesn't know the truth. Jesus, like any wise physician, tells us what's wrong with us and what we need to undergo in order to be healed.

Grace is God's unreserved, undeserved goodness toward us. That's part of the truth as well. God is on our side. He loves and forgives us. He wants to heal us. Why does God bother with us when we are so rebellious and reject his ways? Because of he is gracious.

Another thing Jesus brings is life. And not just the temporary variety of life we already have but eternal life. Life of the same kind God has. And he gives us this life so we can live with him and enjoy him, the source of all goodness, forever.

So how does this relate to the atheist point of view—that life is, at best, a donut, a sweet to be savored precisely because its existence is so limited?

It means we needn't be afraid to enjoy the donut because there is more where that came from. Life is not a one-time brief treat. You are not limited to just one. And if it is a crappy donut, or if it has gotten ruined, you can get another and better one.

But let's switch the metaphor somewhat. One donut is nice occasionally but it isn't a full meal and too many donuts are not only cloying but leave you malnourished. Jesus gives you a full meal for a life. He gives you what you need to grow and become healthy. 

If this is the only life we get, then small wonder there are people who snatch all they want and bully others, ruining theirs simply to make the grabber's life better. Without another life, there is no justice in this world. Without a creator of this life and the next, there really isn't any objective right or wrong either. I might not like what you do or the conditions the bullies have set in place, but if there's no one else, no one with authority over all humans to set the rules, right and wrong are just what we like or don't like. You can play nice if you like; you can also play dirty if you can get away with it. Hitler was a winner at the game, doing whatever he wanted and leaving the game via a bullet before he could be made to suffer the consequences of his acts. If there is only one life.

But if this isn't the only life, if there is another in which injustice will be redressed and the bullies will get their just desserts, then it makes sense not to be greedy and not to steal or hoard, not to harm or neglect others but to make sure everyone gets their fair share. It makes sense to delay gratification and say no to certain temptations. If there is a rulemaker, then it makes sense to follow the rules. And if there is a judge, who is gracious and merciful, it means you can go to him and admit your faults and get forgiven and not be banned from the game but get a clean slate for the next game. Without God, there is no forgiveness for some things. You cannot be forgiven by people whom you've hurt or harmed who are no longer part of this life. There is no one who can really forgive you in their stead.

And if this is the only life we have, it ultimately has no lasting meaning. We are but mayflies compared to the life of the universe. You mean nothing; the lives of those you love mean nothing; your accomplishments mean nothing. Is it any wonder suicide rates are high in countries with a large number of atheists? They don't see themselves as created in God's image, as precious enough for God to come and die for, as his children who will enter into the eternal life of the God who is love and enjoy that love forever. If the pain of life is too much, they can end it. Oddly enough, in countries that are highly religious, though they be poor and their lives be hard, suicide rates are low. A difficult life lived in God's hope is more tolerable to an easy life lived without that hope.

Life is not a donut. Nor is it the sole brief pleasure we will ever experience. And what follows is not just another donut. It is a feast, the wedding banquet of the Lamb, Jesus' favorite picture of the kingdom of God. There the first to grab stuff in their earthly life will be the last and the last to get good things now will be the first in line. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied. And for those whose life was not always something to be savored, God will wipe away all their tears. And their new life will not be finite, not be something to ration, not be something to try to desperately squeeze every last drop of enjoyment from. Because it will be eternal life, from him who gives life and is life, now and evermore.

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