Saturday, February 27, 2010

Beneath the Cleansing Flood

Our 15-year-old is taking biology through the homeschool co-op. It's a Christian group, so the class is taught by a creationist using creationist propaganda a creationist textbook. This is a bit troubling, to me and to her. "I just give the answers the teacher wants," she tells me at dinner, "and I don't worry about what I think." It seems a strange dance to be doing so young, but it's not uncommon. Whether the issue is one of religion or ideology or just peculiarities within a discipline, students must, at one level or another, capitulate to at least some of the whims of any given teacher.

This led to a dinner discussion of creation and the flood and other issues of historicity in the Old Testament. I pointed out, as I have numerous times, that many cultures have a flood story -- and this, coupled with evidence of flooding at different periods of earth's history (geologists are candid about this, calling them "superfloods"), suggests some kernel of truth in the basic contours of those stories. But this doesn't make any particular culture's flood story true in and of itself. Such stories could also be rooted in our habit of settling down in floodplains, which were tantalizingly fertile but subject, of course, to flooding. It would not be hard to see a particularly nasty deluge as divine retribution for something or another.

The conversation moved on to other problems of historicity. The table was a bit distraught when I pointed that there is no extrabiblical evidence that Abraham ever actually lived, especially when I pointed out the conspicuousness of having twelve tribes named after twelve brothers --though I did admit to a literary shift from the overtly mythological in Genesis 12 when Abraham is introduced (I did not point out that the shift in question seems to be one from myth to legend or folklore, or from ancient Semitic mythology to a more specifically Hebrew one). I pointed out that David was probably not the one who slew Goliath, but I didn't mention that this may not have any bearing on the story's historicity to begin with. And so on.

Eventually, everyone left the table but me and our oldest son (he's thirteen), and he stuck around to ask me about the New Testament. What did I think about that? Was it a bunch of of made-up stuff, too? "No," I said facetiously, "It's true. Every last word of it." But he was on to me, and wanted to know where I drew the line. What's true and what's not? I was evasive. "I don't know," I said. "All we have are stories." This wasn't good enough.

"But what do you think? Don't you have an opinion? Don't you care?"

"Sure," I said. "These stories are important."

"Yeah, they're important," he said with teenage petulance. "But do you think they really happened?"

"What do you think?" I deferred.

"Well, I think the Old Testament has a bunch of goofy stuff in it but the New Testament seems okay."

"Okay," I said, "but some people think the Old Testament must be 100% accurate, because their faith relies on it being that way. And there are ways to believe that if you need to. On the other hand, some people think the New Testament is full of goofy stuff, too."

"Yeah, sure. But what do you think?"

I tried different evasions but it eventually came down to me admitting that I wasn't going to tell him. Maybe, I suggested, when he's thirty. He left frustrated, and I apologized later for being evasive. He said it was okay, but I still felt like I'd failed him somehow. Wouldn't a real dad impart his hard-wrought wisdom to his progeny? Part of me knows, however, that whatever I take a hard stand on now is going to be what my son rebels against later. I like to keep that list small.

He can't, as the old movie line goes, handle the truth, but the truth that he can't handle is not that the Christian faith is predicated on a bunch of historically questionable claims, but that his father feels that way. Part of me is concerned about one of our children blurting out their father's theological idiosyncrasies at an inopportune moment, but the bigger part of me is simply concerned about the cognitive dissonance of him trying to deal with his music-minister father being an agnostic or maybe even an atheist. I think he'd feel betrayed. Being my son, he's a bit more skeptical than the average evangelical kid (hence his suspicions about the OT), but he's still a believer, and even as his dad I don't know that I have the right to trump that. I know he just wanted to hear what I thought, but I don't think I'm flattering myself to suspect that what I think might carry some weight, and I want to be careful with that.

I regularly download podcasts from The Moth. It features "true stories, told live without notes." A recent podcast featured a woman with cerebral palsy who told her story with the help of a translator. Even though she spoke English, her speech was mostly incomprehensible except, apparently, to the friend she brought with her. Occasionally a phrase would be intelligible but otherwise we were left to wonder at her translator's ability to make sense of things.

What amazed me was the patience, grace, and enthusiasm shown by her audience. They laughed, they applauded, they cheered. They seemed -- and maybe I was just projecting here -- genuinely interested not only in hearing her story, but in seeing her succeed in the telling. The story, on the surface, didn't seem terribly compelling. It was the story of her first relationship, one that culminated in her first sexual experience; so while there were no lurid details, the story seemed at once pedestrian and a little salacious.

The way she told the story, however, was as a woman who wondered if she'd ever have that kind of relationship, wondered if she'd ever be seen as desirable. As she concludes the story, she speaks of the joy of having been regarded as a woman and not as a disability. At this, the audience erupts into raucous applause and I admit to being moved to tears.

It's this that I want my son to understand someday -- that as important as questions of belief might seem to us, and are to many, to someone like me they are really just a backdrop to the human drama of needing our stories to be heard, of needing to be loved, of needing to be seen as desirable. As much as we'd like to tell ourselves we're more sophisticated than that, we aren't. I'm not.

Maybe when he's thirty.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Crack the Sky

The other night our eleven-year-old daughter came downstairs after bedtime. By itself, this is not all that unusual -- she likes to stall, and I've seen her come down three times in the space of an hour claiming to need the bathroom. This time, however, she came into the kitchen and just kind of milled around. At first I braced for the timeless question -- "What is there to eat?" -- to which my loving and kind answer is always, "Same stuff there always is." But she didn't ask the question, and I began to sense that this was more of an I'm-waiting-for-you-to-notice-I'm-milling-around-and-ask-me-what's-wrong sort of milling around. I'm not the most observant parent, but this one made my radar. I asked her what was wrong.

"Well, I was reading my Bible," she told me, "and I got to the part where Jesus says the world is going to end, and that's a little scary." She's got a bit of a precocious streak when it comes to the Bible. She asked for one for her birthday, and set out to read through it from cover to cover. I'm not sure how far she got, but it was an impressive effort. In fact, it's possible her question meant that she was still at it, and had made it as far as the Gospels. Like I said: impressive.

There are several ways to handle this kind of question. Dismissal came to mind: "Oh, that's nothing to worry about," but that wouldn't have satisfied her. I remember reading Matthew when I was around 14 and being scared to death. It led to one of my first re-conversions; I'd been baptized at 12 but after just two years I had already lapsed. I suppose a good Evangelical answer might be to remind her that she's a baptized believer and thus one of the good guys in the apocalyptic drama, but that wouldn't have satisfied me. Instead, I told her to go get her Bible, and she practically ran up the stairs to do so; I was taking her concern seriously, and best of all, I wasn't calling her out for bedtime evasion. When she came down, I asked her to turn to Psalm 18, which she did.

For awhile I held a theology which said, in effect, that all the bits in the Bible about the Second Coming were fulfilled in the first century -- that they had to do with the destruction of Jerusalem and the ratification of a new covenant between God and humanity, and this was a done deal. I don't really have the metaphysical framework to make sense of that claim anymore, but I remain friends with some of those people and I learned a lot from them, especially with regard to apocalyptic language. I still have a few tricks up my sleeve.

I asked her to read verses 7-15:

7 The earth trembled and quaked,
and the foundations of the mountains shook;
they trembled because he was angry.

8 Smoke rose from his nostrils;
consuming fire came from his mouth,
burning coals blazed out of it.

9 He parted the heavens and came down;
dark clouds were under his feet.

10 He mounted the cherubim and flew;
he soared on the wings of the wind.

11 He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him—
the dark rain clouds of the sky.

12 Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced,
with hailstones and bolts of lightning.

13 The LORD thundered from heaven;
the voice of the Most High resounded.

14 He shot his arrows and scattered the enemies ,
great bolts of lightning and routed them.

15 The valleys of the sea were exposed
and the foundations of the earth laid bare
at your rebuke, O LORD,
at the blast of breath from your nostrils.

"What does that sound like?" I asked.

"The end of the world."

Then we looked at the description of the Psalm's setting, which is decidedly not the end of the world, but David defeating Saul. We talked about why David might use this kind of language to describe his victory. Then we turned to Jesus and why people in his day might use that kind of language to describe their expectation of deliverance -- or the destruction of a city.

"So it's kind of like a parable?" she asked, and that seemed like a good enough grasp to me. We discussed other things that were "kind of like" parables -- the creation accounts, Noah's ark, and so on -- and the need for discretion in how widely we broadcast the reigning "kind of like a parable" hermeneutic in our house. "Oh," she said, "I don't really talk about this stuff with anybody else." She went back to bed, confident that the world was not going to end in a cosmic conflagration while she slept, and much relieved by that.

A new reader recently asked me my thoughts on eschatology. I told him eschatology is a way of offering commentary on the present by imagining the future, which is one of many parallels to sci-fi, but that's another story. Whether we admit it or not, it probably has no correspondence to what the world might actually be like in some distant future, but it can say a lot about what we think about the present. It's a way of projecting our hopes and fears forward. Some people imagine a world in which there is no poverty, hunger, or injustice, and work to make such a world a reality. Others imagine a world in which there are no more Jews, or Muslims, or atheists, and -- well, you can connect the dots.

The world is going to end, of course, and no amount of interpretation is going to change that. Our sun could die out or go supernova. The earth's orbit could decay, and probably is decaying. We could go extinct, or evolve into something unrecognizable. We could blow ourselves up, or render the planet uninhabitable. These possibilities are either of unknown likelihood or happening on a timeline that can only be described as cosmic. We're all more likely to die first. This isn't very sexy -- more whimper than bang. We seem to crave some kind of more definitive closure, which is why I think the end of the world is such a titillating topic.

Believing that all the prophecies are fulfilled effectively takes the End of the World off the table, and I appreciate that. Another option, of course, is to just say that Jesus was wrong, that the New Testament is predicated on a non-event. It comes to the same thing, in many ways -- though I can see reasons for choosing each. By way of parallel, I like universalism because it effectively renders the afterlife a non-issue, even though my preferred way of handling the afterlife is to let go of it altogether. Whether we all go to heaven, or there's no such thing, we can focus on the human predicament of the here and now, and if the former is a more pleasant thought it's because it involves the perpetuation of our egos.

There's a song from White Christmas, a production number in the show (that is, the show within the movie) that indulges in a bit modern dance while making fun of it. It goes through several examples of old school dancing and laments the turn to the modern stuff. "Heps," one line goes, "who did steps...aren't steppin' anymore -- they're doing 'choreography.'" Maybe you just have to see it.

I'm not sure what it is we're not doing any more that's been supplanted by eschatology. Some ancient cultures believed that the world would never end, and this seems as well to have been part of early Hebrew thinking. This changed with the experience of exile, as they cried out that something had to give and implored their God to intervene. They seem to have found some of the mythology of their Persian oppressors useful and appropriated apocalyptic rhetoric to make sense of their own situation. Later, the expressions used by a particular apocalyptic sect (that of one Jesus of Nazareth) would be picked up by the wider culture and combined with Greek teleology, becoming more and more what we would recognize today as eschatology.

We can't escape it. We're locked into thinking that something's gotta give, that there's something waiting just around the corner, that there's a better future waiting to be realized. It may not be the End of the World or even utopia, exactly, but we seem to need something to look forward to, to hope for, something that helps us know how to comport ourselves in the here and now.

On the other hand, it might be possible to miss the here and now because we're obsessed with how things might be. I'm torn on this, not necessarily wanting to endorse the status quo, but not wanting to fall prey to disillusionment, either. Eschatology at its best mediates and modulates this tension; at its worst it exacerbates it. I'm wondering if there's a way to step out of it without becoming complacent. What's that line from The Shawshank Redemption? Something about making a choice to get busy living or get busy dying.

And maybe that's it: we're not living anymore -- we're doing eschatology.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

On Being the Anti-Job

I think I need a new schtick. I've been involved in a couple of internet arguments debates conversations lately in which I'm the resident skeptic/cynic/naysayer. Usually I'm trying (in vain) to point out that none of the things we say about God -- whether God exists or doesn't, what God might be like if God does exist, what might exist if God doesn't -- ever really touch the ground. Or maybe they never really touch the sky. Anyway. It's just so much shooting in the dark, and this seems really, really obvious to me in a way that almost makes me surprised that people argue so vehemently against it.

There's an extent to which you either get this or you don't. You either see it or you're allowed to persist in thinking that somehow your speculations about the divine touch something on the other side. Maybe that's a kind of blessing. Maybe that's one of those lies we're allowed to believe as a hedge against madness, and I'm the weird one for thinking I see through that, blinded -- as I must be -- to the lies that I believe that keep me from going mad.

But I'm tired of yammering on about it. My cultivated curmudgeonliness masks the joie de vivre remarked upon by people who know me in person. My resounding and defiant "NO!" to metaphysical speculation hides my consistent "Yes!" to life in all of its mottled glory.

I'm not really a stranger to faith, or an enemy of faith. I have stories to tell of abundance and provision, of stepping out and being buoyed by an unseen hand. Stories that continue to unfold long after I've stopped believing in a hand there to buoy me. I persist in thinking that my life is guided by something, I know not what, and this intuition is confirmed with remarkable regularity even though I claim no metaphysical commitments that might render it intelligible. If we listen to what my wife and I just call "that voice," things seem to work out for us; I've lived, and continue to live, what seems like a charmed life.

I can't reconcile that charmed life with the suffering of others, with the stories of my friends who do not seem to share that experience and yet possess what would seem to be a much stronger faith in the conventional sense. I don't know why we get to be happy while one of our friends was abandoned by a man who turned out to be a manipulative, lying snake, and while she now faces a custody battle as she struggles with cancer. I don't know why we, both introverted agnostics, get to stay together with a big family while another friend -- an extraverted evangelical -- lives alone, unable to find love after his wife left him.

As much as I might believe that things will be okay for us -- and I do believe that -- I find it hard to offer the same comfort to a third friend who has suffered permanent brain damage from a work injury and is trying to finish a college degree as his mind and body betray him and his disability income dwindles. He lives with a perpetual migraine and can only get relief by running cold water over his head, which lasts anywhere from a few minutes to an hour, or large doses of Vicodin, which leaves him incoherent. He also happens to be in one of my classes, though I think he's my age or older, and the other day he asked me: "Was I in class on Tuesday? I lost a day."

And it's not like our life of relative blessing is enough that we can offer significant material help. We don't have the clout or the resources to offer much except our friendship and the stalwart refusal to trivialize their pain. That's not nothing, and that we offer it is, in a very real way, our faith. We give what we can -- sometimes more than we can, or think we can -- to our friends because they're our friends. To those who would say this is not faith because it's not accompanied by the right kind of intellectual assent to theological propositions, well -- fuck you.

I'll continue to listen to "that voice," and I'm sure I'll persist in the notion that things will be okay for me. I'm not much of a worrier, to be honest, a character quality that I think frustrates my wife. But I refuse to make my experience as one of the lucky ones normative for others, or try to explain their life in light of mine. I won't do it. I can't say that there must be a God, and this God must be good, simply because my life happens to be okay, or because even when it's not okay I happen to have the wherewithal to bear up under it (okay, I have had my moments). Much less would I suggest that God exists and is merciful simply because my friends' spirits have not been completely crushed -- yet.

Instead, I'll celebrate their goodness and resilience. We will mourn with them when we need to. And I'll plead their case to the skies, just in case someone is listening.