To Awake from a Dream: A Minister’s Apology in the Face of Faith
I awoke this morning from a dream. I may have emerged from slumber due to nearby hunters killing the dreams of ducks and deer, but I think there were other reasons I was roused. The dream was vivid but incomplete, as most dreams seem to be. In the dream was a letter; I was opening a letter from an old friend, someone who had written before to tell me how saddened she was to hear that I had lost my faith, that I had left the Lord. As I was opening this letter I noticed, not only that it was longer than the first–perhaps two to three pages–but that this letter contained a newsletter that I had sent to her simply to show that I was continuing to work in compassionate service though I had left “the ministry.” This was an issue I addressed in my response to her first (non-dream) letter to me after many years with no contact. So, as I was opening this new letter returning what I had sent. . .I woke up. I never saw a word of her reply. I simply woke, and as I did a flood of thoughts began to, well, flood in. Streams of ideas actually. One by one, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, I was laying out my response to what I knew intuitively her letter would say, and this response would be not only to my old friend but to every person of faith. In my half-sleep state I found the clarity of thought to say what I need to say, and now that I am up, with the fire and the laptop lit, I will attempt to place these streams on the map of this essay. I urge the reader to pour a cup of tea (or dram of scotch), do your best to stay awake, and walk along these streams a short way with me.
Monster, Torturer, Immoral Parent
My former Faith presented me with a clear choice: believe correctly or be punished. God loved the world (including me) so much that He (the loving, angry Father) gave (arranged the torturous murder of) His Son (a homeless mystic in a nowhere village in a tiny country far away) so that everyone (including me) who believed (correctly) in Him (the murdered son) would not perish (be torturously murdered by the Father as well) but have everlasting life (an eternal existence in a heavenly city/mega-church where no one would do anything but praise, praise, praise, over and over, forever and ever). Quite a choice! I chose to Believe! At least for a majority of my life.
What I now see as the choice is even clearer: believe, or think about it. When I think about it I am deeply troubled by even the most “progressive” faith position. First, as John Burroughs and others have eloquently offered, the God of the Bible is a Monster. Nothing less, and nothing more. He is the most terrible, terrifying creature we could ever imagine. He (we all know He is a He, right?) is the Master Torturer, fickle and fearful as the best tribal deity of old–or the most brutal dictator. We’ll look closer at the biblestory later, but here I simply want to say that from the seminal semitic story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac (thank God–or Reason–he didn’t go through with it) to the Christian God’s actual murder of His own child, this divine being is intent on death, destruction, temptation and torture. Yes, yes. The “good book” is full of statements, words, about the loving parent in the sky. But this is what I have been thinking lately: Is this God a good parent? Is the God of Christianity a model parent? Hardly.
The old and tired debate over “freewill” takes on a special meaning here. People (many atheists and even some of the faithful) ask, “How can a loving God permit all the killing and war, disease and disaster in the world?” How indeed. Great minds have debated this for ever. Here’s another quick look at it. Let’s say you are a parent. You give your child freedom. A few guiding rules, but lots of freedom. They are free to choose what to do. Your child gets in a little trouble, you have a talk and work things out. You might ground them for a while, take away some t.v. time, whatever. Then your child kills someone. That’s terrible, but it was their choice. You aren’t responsible. After all, you gave them the freedom (and responsibility) to choose and they chose something bad, but it was their free choice. Now let’s say this child becomes a mass murderer, a serial killer or even a world leader who starts a war in which thousands or millions of people die. Hey, freewill. You really want to punish them, but they are free, not under your control. Now what if all along, from the very start, you knew they would do these terrible things? And let’s say that you actually could have stopped the whole thing in the first place–could have arranged things a little differently so all this mess wouldn’t have played out. And now, here’s the clincher. What if you had, all along, planned this all to happen–the bad choices, the killings of innocent people (and hey, the guilty too) and the Great Punishment awaiting them all? You set your child up to fail, to destroy other lives, to be forgiven (if they believe correctly in one of your other children whom you arranged to be murdered by some other children) or torturously punished in a place you specially built for the occasion. What a parent! Yet, this is the “model parent” of most religious people in the world. A “loving” torturer who tortures and kills for lessons, punishment or self-satisfaction (“atonement”) that another has been saved or at least given the opportunity to be saved. And saved from what, to what? Torture. How “free” does that sound? What “choice” does this god really offer? Believe in the Monster, the Torturer, the Immoral Parent–or suffer a horrible rendition in His very own torturer chamber far worse than anything ever constructed by the diabolical human mind–literally a hell exponentially worse than any Guantanamo Bay, Gulag, Abu Ghraib, or Auschwitz. Slow, eternal death by fire. Nothing more horrible than being burned, but this is slow, everlasting, a ghoulish barbeque. Isn’t it comforting knowing this was conceived, built and operated by a “Loving God?”
I can hear the chorus from “conservatives:” “That’s just Old Testament. The God of the New is all about love, love, love.” And this blends with the choir of “progressives”: “Oh, but most Christians don’t believe in hell anymore.” Really? There is no punishment for disbelief anymore? It’s all love for a God of Love? How ignorant. Why not make it all up. That’s exactly what the song tells me. It’s fashionable for both conservatives and progressives to pick and choose, ignoring the terrible truth: the original story from the source book, manipulated, redacted, translated and interpreted as it has been, still presents the world with the Torturing Parent. So the sleight of hand and mind continues. Ap-parently anyone can believe anything about God, Jesus, the bible? Is the bible really “God’s Word” or merely hot plastic to mold any way the faithful choose? If so, why believe at all! If the Old is too old and there is only the New we are still left with a God who–however brokenhearted–purposely has His son horrifically executed to make people believe correctly, live right and be loved. Hey, I didn’t make this up. Jesus could have simply died calmly in his sleep for the salvation of the world! No, the Monster (far worse than any Adversary, i.e. satan) was on the prowl.
If you no longer believe in hell, or heaven for that matter, what’s the purpose of faith? To live a “better life?” Fine. Do that (as countless freethinkers and atheists do). The world is better for people living better. That seems reasonable. But what of God? And what of the Christian (Jewish, Muslim) God? Billions, not just millions, believe in the “God of the Bible.” These billions worship every day the Great Torturer and Immoral Parent. Reasonable people have reason to be concerned!
Liar, Lunatic, Lord and More
Christian “apologists” (defenders of the faith) from Chesterton to C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer to Josh McDowell, have presented the “clear choice” regarding Jesus of Nazareth: He was either a liar, a lunatic or the Lord. Now that I’m wider awake from my dawn dream I can’t recall all my streaming thoughts from those moments. However, I can clearly say this: this is no clear choice. My answer to these defenders is to “apologize” on behalf of contemporary thinking people. And I can unapologetically state that, in my opinion, the rebel rabbi was all of the above; liar, lunatic and lord–at least to many then and now. “Lord” in first-century Rome was simply another way of saying “Sir” so that’s no big problem. Yet it is true that, whether the man actually said it or not, many of his followers interpreted some of his statements as meaning he was closely related if not identical with The Lord, the LORD (YHVH) of Jewish tradition. As to being a “liar,” I mean he probably knew that some things he said weren’t literally true, that his words would be misunderstood or misinterpreted, but he said them anyway. “White lies” maybe (are there racist tones to that?). As for being a “lunatic,” he certainly said and did things that would today be labeled as such (or at least delusional or a bit psychotic), for instance speaking to his “father” in the sky, addressing satan in his closest friend, casting out demons or envisioning himself as the “Son of Humanity” descending from Heaven to judge the world.
As for being lord or God, the peripatetic preacher identified himself (or, as I said, his biographers identified him) as intimate with the Creator of the Universe. Numerous statements, taken out of context as they all are, would suggest that Jesus felt we all have or could enjoy that intimate relationship or identification (John 17–“[I pray] that they may be one as we are one”). “The kingdom of God is within you” and “As you’ve [abused] the least of these you’ve abused me,” are only a sample.
If there is some way of recovering something of the “real Jesus” behind all the theology, iconology and imagination we might find that indeed he was a little of all these portraits. Personally I have employed him as a helpful social reformer image for my own work, but he could as well be used to stir a revolution, inspire human rights or build religious fortresses. Of course, he has done it all, so to speak. Quite a resume.
The Second Roman Empire (shattered glass)
The Roman Empire spread over much of the known world for many centuries. The Second Roman Empire was the Roman Catholic Church that spread even further across the globe. And, like a mammoth pane of glass raised from Italy and the Middle East, it tipped, fell and shattered into shards into every corner of the cornerless planet.
Book of Love? Gated garden of Eden to the Gates of Heaven
Many people of faith say that the bible is really a book of love. “Progressives” claim that the book is useful for its teachings and examples of justice, compassion and human community. I have said this over the years myself. A closer look only points to the same obvious conclusion: How can a book that presents the Great Torturer (allbeit conflicted, controlling, angry and “loving”) be considered a good source for personal or social moral teaching? If, as I have said, this horrible specimen of a parent is shown time and again to cause or be an intimate accomplice to pain, division, cruelty and murder–if this is the biblical god, why not toss the book in the flames? And my question to “Progressive Christians” stands: Do you really need a book or a god to tell you to be good, just, compassionate? Without your progressive beliefs you would not “do what’s right?” That would be troubling to say the least.
What Dreams are made of
My reply to the dream letter from a friend is hard, even a bit harsh, but not unfeeling. I wish her well. I wish every person of faith well–to be healthy and fulfilled, to practice a meaningful life alone and in community. There is no purpose in harassing or hating others simply for their beliefs or disbeliefs. My response here, open as it is to public scrutiny, arose from a feeling of harassment–a letter delivered to my nocturnal “downtime.” Woe is me, these matters have mattered to me for many a year. For far too long I have occupied valuable mental-rental space for this stuff that stuffs the mind with excessive and obsessive spinning and looping imaginations.