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My Story Part (whatever, I can’t keep track anymore)

August 25, 2009

Well, this little project is becoming a little more involved than I had orginially planned. Everyone has asked some great questions and I have been trying to answer all of them as best I can. I’m going to get into what I believe about science and history in later posts in this series. But, in this one, I hope to talk about two things that seem to keep coming back up, that is, the notion of suffering and Christian Morality.

Also, I want to clear up some things people have said in the posts, such as I come off too confident. This is the peril of Internet communication. I think that Christianity is true and explains the world. But, I can’t prove it 100 percent, nor do I think I will ever be able to do so. Doubt is always my constant companion and it drives my faith. As any of the Ohio State atheists can tell you, I’m open and honest about my doubt.

As I write this, I’m listening to Green Day, something I would have never done in high school. As I said before, I was too much of a legalist. A legalist is a person who points their finger at everyone condeming people for their sins and being smug in their own self righteoussness. That was me and that’s certainly the going attitude in most of American Christianity. I must admit, I still struggle with it.

Christians has always had a problem with smugness, especially those who haven’t been humbled, broken, and gone through some serious crap in their lives. They become in love with rules and making everyone follow the rules. It’s almost pathological, and indeed, I would put forth the idea this is why we have Christian attrocities from the Crusades, the Witchhunts and the hatred of gays in modern America. An obsessive focus on morality brings smugness, which turns to fear, which turns to hatred. As a result, all kinds of ugliness happens. This is why I keep asserting that the above horrors happened out of a warped sense of morality, not what Christianity confesses. This is a key point that atheists often miss because Christians miss it.

Christianity is not about being good and I have spent my whole life figuring that out. The Core idea of Christianity is that we can’t be good. Period. And any Christian who insists we can is deluding themselves. The story of Christianity is that we are saved by Grace and because we are saved by Grace, we should be full of love, not hate. Grateful, not seeking to force people to believe what we do, but to rather be an example of it. Do I think Christians are not “real Christians” if they don’t do this? No, I would never say that.

But, I would say, myself or anyone else who doesn’t accept the above fact of Christianity should realize we are being bad Christians. And when we forget Grace, we become monsters, more than anyone else. We become monsters of legalism that devour people, kill people and hate people. As Jesus once told the pharisees, when you make a convert, you make them twice a son of hell as yourself.

Which now brings me to suffering. It’s often the point I hear the most in my conversations. As a minister, I have experienced the suffering of others first hand. This is another point that gets missed when people talk about ministers. Most ministers, not the bloated TV evangelists pigs, make little money. For example, I have driven the same car for ten years. They endure long hours, impossible expectations, and some of the ugliest situations you can imagine. When people say that ministers live cushy lives, I just laugh. Bitterly, often. Because people have no idea.

For example, you remember your high school speech class? The horror of it? You prepared a speech, gave it in front of your peers and then, depending on the teacher, you had to endure the critique. Now, magnify that by ten times and you will understand what a pastor goes through every time he steps into the pulpit. He has to say something inspiring every week while making sure he gets all of his facts right. If he doesn’t you can better be sure that people will call him on it. I have actually spent hours the day after my sermon attempting to explain a point I had made the day before. Or why I had misquoted the Bible or used a particulat sermon illustration from a movie that some people didn’t like. Still think preachers live cushy lives?

But, back to the point. I have walked with people through death, called the police while protecting a woman from her abusive husband, and other such horrors. And to be honest, suffering is the hardest thing for me when it comes to my faith. All the science and history questions don’t really bother me, as I’ll explain later. It’s the how can God allow such suffering? Such horror? This is especially true when it comes to kids and my involvement with the Not For Sale group and its campaign to stop slavery.

I know, logically, that it’s not an inherent contradiction for God to allow suffering. I know all the intellectual and theological answers for this. But, frankly, they aren’t really good enough when you are holding a one year old who has been thrown to the floor by his father. It’s not good enough when you sit by the bed with a family whose father is dying. Or, when your own wife, after years of trying to have kids, has a miscarriage and can’t sit in church, broken by her grief. A naturalistic worldview is no comfort in this either. As PZ said in his blog yesterday, “The world is nasty and cruel”. Or as Dawkins says, “The really adult view, is to make our life as meaningful and wonderful as possible.” Really, Richard? And how does that work with people who have undergone such unthinkable horrors? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and get over it? There are some things that you just don’t get over or that you can make meaningful.

I don’t know that the problem of suffering (or evil if you prefer) has any solid answers as to why God does allow it. I’ll be honest, I question Him on this all the time. But, there is something that keeps drawing me. This idea that God doesn’t remove ourself from our suffering, rather, He entered into it fully through the person of Jesus Christ. He is not a god who keeps himself distant from the suffering of the world, but choose to bare the brunt of it through the Cross. This is what Christianity teaches and has always taught, the mystery of the Incarnation.

Most people say that there is nothing worse then suffering. They are wrong. What’s worse is meaningless suffering. God suffered with us to show us that suffering can be redeemed and that it holds the promise it will one day come to an end. Without that, the suffering everyone in the whole world has experienced has no meaning, just human being crushed on the wheel of an indifferent universe. Tell that to the people who suffer and see how far that gets you. People say that Christianity is cruel because it asks people to embrace suffering. Well, I can’t think of anything more cruel than to tell someone their suffering has no value or worth.

And it’s one of the things I find most compeling about Christianity, the suffering God, the one who doesn’t hold back from fully identifying with His Creation and then taking all the suffering of the world on himself. Why does He allow it? The better question is , What has he done or doing about it?

And this brings us full circle to Christian morality. We are to enter into other people’s suffering as Christ entered into ours. Love, Joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self control, against these things there are no law. This is Christian morality as motivated by God’s grace. Anything else is destructive moralism that will eat you away in the end.

And, if I’m not careful, it eats away at me.

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28 Comments leave one →
  1. AdamK permalink
    August 25, 2009 11:22 am

    That was a beautiful post.

    The trouble with the internet is there’s no hugging.

  2. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 25, 2009 11:27 am

    Ha! Yeah, as great as the Interwebs is, doesn’t beat good old fashioined human contact.

  3. August 25, 2009 12:08 pm

    I agree. Group hug.

  4. erp permalink
    August 25, 2009 12:24 pm


    A naturalistic worldview is no comfort in this either. As PZ said in his blog yesterday, “The world is nasty and cruel”. Or as Dawkins says, “The really adult view, is to make our life as meaningful and wonderful as possible.” Really, Richard? And how does that work with people who have undergone such unthinkable horrors? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and get over it? There are some things that you just don’t get over or that you can make meaningful.

    The naturalistic worldview isn’t meant to be comforting; it is the philosophy that one uses to live by given this that may comfort.

    I would modify Dawkins’ words to say “make our lives as meaningful and wonderful as possible”. Be there for each other. Note that this doesn’t mean yanking belief in Jesus or Krishna or Guan Yin away from someone suffering and using it for comfort (barring cases where the given belief hurts others [e.g., we have to win X’s favor by purifying the community]). I have a little thought experiment for the atheists. Suppose you were alone with someone dying who sincerely believed (a) in Jesus and (b) that baptism was necessary for salvation and that person asked you to baptize them. Would you do so? Now for the Christians, if with a dying person who requested a ritual necessary in their non-Christian religion, would you help them do it? Now this may be taken too far. I’m not sure what I feel about “The Atheists Mass” by Balzac (read it, it isn’t too long and I disagree with the last sentence by Desplein).

  5. AdamK permalink
    August 25, 2009 1:01 pm

    “Suppose you were alone with someone dying who sincerely believed (a) in Jesus and (b) that baptism was necessary for salvation and that person asked you to baptize them. Would you do so?”

    This is not a hypothetical for me. I actually have done this. Gladly.

  6. AdamK permalink
    August 25, 2009 1:04 pm

    And I should add, it was enormously comforting for me, to know there was something I could do. It’s terrible to feel helpless at the side of a dying person.

  7. Fauxrs permalink
    August 25, 2009 3:51 pm

    “Really, Richard? And how does that work with people who have undergone such unthinkable horrors? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and get over it? There are some things that you just don’t get over or that you can make meaningful.”

    I couldnt agree more, there are definitly things in our lives that simply cannot be gotten over and if the only possible way to ease someones pain was religion, I say then “religion shall serve”. I am open to the existance of Jesus, even though stories about him are anecdotal at best, I see no compelling reason to disbelieve that he ever existed. I personally do not believe in the divinity part but it matters not to me if others do.

    All that matters to me is that I am treated fairly, that my government doesnt become a theocracy, that religion doesnt dictate (through its influence with government or society) to me , my friends, my family or anyone else for that matter what I can do or believe. That it doesnt try to indoctrinate in public schools and that it doesnt get in the way of teaching real science in schools and not some pseudoscience that really isnt anything more than reworded creationism. If the church stayed out of my life and everyone elses except their flock, if it stopped its bigotry towards non-believers and homosexuals I would be well pleased.

    Religion right now seems to either do these things now, or seriously seems to be trying to reach a point where it can. These are the issues I have with religion. Maybe it would be more accurate to say “The church” as opposed to religion, I dont know.

    As for Erp’s question “Suppose you were alone with someone dying who sincerely believed (a) in Jesus and (b) that baptism was necessary for salvation and that person asked you to baptize them. Would you do so?”

    Gladly, I gain nothing by denying whatever small margin of comfort to a person, even if I find little value in the request, what kind of human being would I be to deny such a request? I hope that the question posed to the Christians would receive the same sort of consideration, though I really wonder if there wouldnt be some on both sides of the coin who would stand up and walk away. And thats the real pity.

  8. Ms.Crazy Pants permalink
    August 25, 2009 3:57 pm

    When a person is on their deathbed, you will be hard pressed to find any atheist that is going to try an argue with a person about their beliefs. That involves an emotional coldness that no normal person has. I could imagine though some of the more “smug” Christians announcing to a dying person that they’re going to burn unless they convert that instant. The day after my dad died, someone who was previously a family friend (friend up until that day) came to our door to lay blame on my mother for not being “Christian enough” to save him. My dad had lung cancer and was a smoker since age 13….there was nothing “magical” about his death. It was a normal explainable thing that there just wasn’t going to be any “trick” to beating it. He’d had it 3 times before, lost most of his lungs already, and was still a 2-pack/day smoker. No amount of anything be it praying, surgery, lung transplant…nothing was going to change the fact that he was going to die, so I never understood the verbal attack that ensued right after my dad died.

    Years before I might argue with my dad on religious matters, but once he was sick, it was my job to provide comfort for his last days, not trying to prove anything. He claimed to talk to angels during his last few weeks, and even the cross on the wall. That was fine. He wasn’t one for praying with people, so that wasn’t mentioned, but he didn’t want be alone, so we were there to hold his hand during the seizures (it had spread to his brain), change his diapers, administer medicine, clean up blood and gobs of phlegm, and listen to his stories of the angels and the talking Jesus on the cross in his room.

    Not long before my dad got sick, he asked me not to make my final decisions or judgements about the church until I was older. I was 18 when he said that. I waited until I was in my 30’s.

    Being atheist doesn’t mean we don’t value the people around us. I would argue that it makes us value people MORE, because that’s all we have. There is no after-death for us, there is no seeing family again when we’re gone, and there is not being saved from anything we’ve done bad in our lives. If we kill someone, we can’t suddenly claim we are absolved for our bad deed. Remorse doesn’t change anything. It seems to me that various religions give various “do over” cards, or other ways to get out of punishment. If you kill someone and then turn religious, you get a pass in to some fantastical afterlife. I don’t understand how millions of people don’t see something wrong with that.

    Anyway, I’m not saying this to say you don’t have a tough job, but the negative parts of it are not reserved for just Christians. That’s what one calls normal life.

  9. Richard Eis permalink
    August 25, 2009 4:48 pm

    My materialistic view of the world does comfort me to some extent. There is something terrifying, but also weirdly comforting about realising how tiny you are in the universe and how indifferent it is. A little like being invisible and untouchable.

    Two things :
    1) If i cut myself should i blame God, or myself?

    2) The obvious way to alleviate human suffering is to remove that which makes us human. You don’t want to cry over dying loved ones? Easy. Remove love. No Pain? Easy, remove pain….but….

  10. AdamK permalink
    August 25, 2009 5:07 pm

    “If i cut myself should i blame God, or myself?”

    Christian credit/blame rules:

    1. If something good happens, thank/praise god.
    2a. If something bad happens, thank/praise god it wasn’t worse.
    2b. If something really bad happens, it was god’s will.
    2c. If something even worse happens, god works in mysterious ways.
    2d. If it’s even worse than that, who the hell are you to question god? (See Job.)
    3. If you do something good, give god the glory.
    4. If you do something bad, blame yourself.

  11. AdamK permalink
    August 25, 2009 5:09 pm

    Oh, and

    5. If somebody else does something bad, blame PZ Myers.

  12. Richard Eis permalink
    August 25, 2009 5:32 pm

    6. If it’s a natural disaster, you have to blame the homosexuals, or people talking about equality for homosexuals….or elm trees apparently.

  13. Tiranna permalink
    August 25, 2009 6:06 pm

    Richard Eis,
    I also find an odd comfort in thinking about my insignificance, though I go back and forth in believing it to be true; mostly for kicks since my believing something normally doesn’t change its existence status. However, I don’t get your second point at all… explain? Finally, damn those elms for causing natural disasters!

  14. August 25, 2009 6:22 pm

    Adam K.-
    I must say I find those rules eerily amusing. I must add though, i don’t think God is free of blame in Scripture. David, Father Abe, and others ultimately question God’s will and basically half of the psalms and all of lamentations and other prophets are just railing against the agony caused by God.

  15. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 25, 2009 7:02 pm

    I think that’s a tshirt in the making, “Blame PZ”

  16. August 25, 2009 7:13 pm

    AdamK and Richard E: Keep going guys … one more rule and you are up to 10, and then we can have them inscribed on stone tablets.

    More seriously, I connect with Ms. Crazy Pants story because I recently lost my own father to a long illness. I am astounded by the cruelty of her neighbor; that just ain’t right by any standard.

  17. AdamK permalink
    August 25, 2009 7:43 pm

    “…just railing against the agony caused by God.”

    My favorite parts! 🙂

  18. Johann permalink
    August 26, 2009 12:35 am

    As Adam said – it’s a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing it with us, and for having the courage to open up this way.

    But… (yeah, you knew this was coming ;))

    God suffered with us to show us that suffering can be redeemed and that it holds the promise it will one day come to an end. Without that, the suffering everyone in the whole world has experienced has no meaning…

    See, I don’t see how that confers any meaning onto our suffering. It gives hope that we’ll be rewarded for it someday. But where is the meaning? Try as I might, I cannot find any in the story of a god who incarnated himself to tell us that we should follow him or suffer eternally. (How much suffering has this idea alone brought into the world?)

    A naturalistic worldview is no comfort in this either.

    This is a very common misconception of a naturalistic view and those who hold it. You seem to think that the natural outcome of thinking that suffering is pointless is despair. My view – insert the standard disclaimer about not speaking for all atheists here – can perhaps be summarized this way: “This suffering is pointless. Let’s do something about it.

    I don’t look for solace from The Way Things Are; it would be absurd to demand comfort from mass-energy conversion or the fact that the Earth orbits the Sun. (Though people do find comfort and inspiration in all sorts of unusual places. :)) If you want to picture my point of view, try thinking of suffering as you would about a disease or a hurricane. When it strikes, you don’t sit there and comfort yourself with thoughts of better days to come. You find a cure. You find a boat and weather the storm. And when it happens to someone else, you help them do the same, and perhaps one day when you can’t stand on your own someone else will give you a hand. These connections, this web of support that we make out of what love and kindness we can spare is what really matters – all the philosophical arguments in the world are dust to someone whose entire life just turned upside down. It’s not about “just getting over it”, but about looking for help and comfort in the right place.

    Many religions cloud our view of reality with fantastic interpretations and imaginary rewards and punishments, and so limit our will and ability to improve it – some in vague theological terms, and some in starkly obvious and harmful ways. It’s one of the reasons I think we would be better off without them.

    Love, Joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self control, against these things there are no law. This is Christian morality as motivated by God’s grace.

    It’s your morality, Jonathan. You may be inspired to it by the words ofthe Bible, but in the end it comes down to who you are as a person, and who you want that person to be. The things you listed don’t seem to be characteristic of all or even most Christians, and a good number of them would disagree with your understanding of what being a Christian is all about, and I think the lot of you would be missing the point. It’s not about being Christian. It’s about being human.

    …I can’t think of anything more cruel than to tell someone their suffering has no value or worth.

    I can. I was at my best friend’s house with her, her mother and her ten year old sister when the police called to tell them that her father killed himself. I held them, and I called their friends for them because they couldn’t, and I listened and talked to them when words started to mean something again.

    Her mother thought keeping what they could of their daily routine would help them cope, so she sent her little sister to school the next day. One of her classmates – without malice, from what I heard, and out of a sincere desire to tell the Christian truth as she knew it – told her that her father was in hell.

    Tell me again how cruel my worldview is in comparison.

  19. August 26, 2009 3:58 am

    “Christianity is not about being good and I have spent my whole life figuring that out. The Core idea of Christianity is that we can’t be good. Period.”

    Just as theists think my beliefs are sad because there’s no God in them, I find this incredibly sad. I know the optimism is supposed to come from grace, but since I don’t believe in that, it just seems like a bleak worldview. I have no idea if this comes from my Jewish(-ish) upbringing or my atheism or both. I do remember as a kid thinking how ridiculously unfair was the notion of original sin; I’d like to think I would have rejected it even if I had been raised a Christian, but who knows.

    In any case, I prefer the notion that whether or not I’m a good person is determined by my actions and work on Earth, and doesn’t stem from a symbolic Creation myth that has a lot of problems.

  20. Richard Eis permalink
    August 26, 2009 5:28 am

    -However, I don’t get your second point at all… explain? –

    I’m saying that pain (let’s take loss of a loved one) is part of our humanity. Would you rather that we didn’t care when our loved ones died?
    The answer to “why does god allow suffering” is “well what would the world be like without it?” Would it really be a better world?

    Obviously some suffering is pointless and dumb, but i hope that better explains my point.

  21. AdamK permalink
    August 26, 2009 8:39 am

    Johann, thanks for your post. You spoke for me too, especially when you said, “It’s about being human.” I wish that this was everyone’s first thought, and that our religious definitions and differences were vastly less important to everyone.

  22. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 26, 2009 10:48 am

    Zen Monkey,
    I don’t think it’s a bleak worldview, I think it’s realistic to the way the world actually is.

  23. AdamK permalink
    August 26, 2009 11:25 am

    It’s interesting how different people think of “bleak” or “despairing.” To me, the idea of being ruled over by an all-power, all-seeing, omnipresent Lord is simply horrible. I can’t think of a bleaker or more desperate situation. Especially when I’m expected to love, worship and obey him. Absolutely revolting. Sounds like North Korea. I can’t see any characteristic of Yahweh that makes him any improvement over Sauron or Voldemort. Yecch!

    But, you will argue, what about gentle jesus meek & mild? Isn’t he lovely? He came into the world to fix everything. Good job! What a difference he made! Kim Il Sung vs. Kim Jong Il. Completely different!

  24. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 26, 2009 11:42 am

    No, I wouldn’t argue Jesus meek and mild. He was anything but.

  25. Ms. Crazy Pants permalink
    August 26, 2009 12:21 pm

    “It’s interesting how different people think of “bleak” or “despairing.” To me, the idea of being ruled over by an all-power, all-seeing, omnipresent Lord is simply horrible.”
    —I concur with that. I don’t want to get into details, but it just seems to be oppressive to me. I don’t take well to being viewed as an “object” or a slave.

    Also, I have a lot easier time with the concept of death with it being just the end.

  26. Richard Eis permalink
    August 26, 2009 1:58 pm

    -Also, I have a lot easier time with the concept of death with it being just the end.-

    Yeah, i mean…eternity….ugh…scary.

  27. Tiranna permalink
    August 26, 2009 3:51 pm

    Thanks for the clarification, Richard, my first read was the opposite of what you meant 😛

    Ever since reading Sartre’s “Les jeux sont faits”, my view of death and the heaven-esque afterlife is very skewed. Eternity as a disembodied human does not sound pleasant regardless of the company.

  28. Richard Eis permalink
    August 27, 2009 3:53 am

    My pleasure Tiranna. Les jeux sont faits sounds deliciously depressing. I may have to read it.

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