Monday, February 20, 2006

So Who Made That Tree?

Okay -- I know this is long -- but I've been mulling over it for some time.

Three semesters ago, I was working with a world literature student on her semester paper. She was doing a study of Milton – something about his theology, I forget exactly what, but she had been raised Pentecostal and Milton, obviously, had not, and it was a comparative paper, her theology against Milton’s theology, her theodicy as compared to his.

But she was an extremely bright student, and despite also being only nineteen years old, she had begun to notice the holes in the theology and the theodicy of her church’s worldview. Studying Milton (well, yes, studying Milton in my class) had only helped this process along.

We were reading over her paper, which focused, as of course it would, on the first chapters of Genesis, and the problems that exist in the text there, and how Milton attempts to resolve them, and how her church did, and suddenly she focused her eyes on me.

“What do you think?” she demanded.

“What?” I asked.

“What do you think? Do you think any of this is real?”

“Ah. Well.”

“No. Seriously. Do you think Adam and Eve existed and the Garden of Eden was there and all of this is actually true?”

“Well,” I said. “No. I don’t.”

She sat looking at me. Just past me, on the shelf by my shoulder, are all the books I use when I teach Bible as Literature: The New Oxford Annotated Bible, The Greek/English New Testament, my Torah with its Modern Commentary, my ancient King James version, very battered, my Chumash, my Tanakh, all the rest.

“What I think,” I told her, carefully, “is that the text is a parable. Think of Jesus. Think how he told true things in stories. It’s like that. I think,” I told her, “that the whole text of the Bible is like that. It’s all parable.”

I stopped there. She was watching me, sort of the way you might watch a leopard. Or, you know, a serpent on an apple tree.

She wandered out, a bit later. And wrote me a fine paper. I haven’t seen her since.

I used to, back when I was a young instructor, back when I was a graduate student, dodge these questions. I wouldn’t say I did believe in God, but I wouldn’t say I didn’t, either. I would act like thought the Sacred Texts of my students was actually Sacred Truth and Real and Valid. I would not say no when they assumed that I believed that Jesus was Our Lord. And blah blah blah.

But this, I came to see, was lying. And invalid. And dishonest. And anyway, why should I support their worldview? Why should I not support my own? Is it not part of my job to let them know that other (valid) worldviews exist?

So I began to say no, when they asked. Only when they asked. Because this was in Idaho, land of the Mormons. And then North Carolina, the edge of the Bible Belt. And now, of course, Arkansas. Yikes.

I remember the first time I flat out told a student – in North Carolina – that I was an atheist.

It was a pack of students, actually – it was after class, after a presentation by another student who had been talking about the Enlightenment – and they were outraged, and gathered around my desk, wanting me to assure them that this was stupid and sinful and no real grown-up would support it. “You believe in God, right?” they demanded.

“Well, no,” I said. “I’m an atheist, in fact.”

They stared at me, as blankly as though I had been speaking French.

“What’s an atheist?” one asked, finally.

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. Then I explained. They kept staring at me, in astonishment this time.

Finally, another one said, “You don’t believe in God? But that’s – that’s – how can you not believe in God? Where do you think that tree came from?” she demanded, waving to the tree outside the window.

This wasn’t a ten year old, mind you. This was a twenty year old woman. She might have been twenty-two, in fact.

I don’t tell students I’m an atheist unless they ask me, though, even now. I don’t bring it up, is what I’m saying. But I don’t pretend to believe in their God. I don’t pretend that the world is run by any sort of deity – and I can’t see, frankly, how they can believe it is. I mean, look around once, can’t they?

Lately, what with posts like these:

[I]mportantly, if you believe that morals are handed down by mystical superbeings rather than worked out among rational, compassionate adults, you will never really "get" morality.

It is impossible to be a moral being yourself, or a positive moral force in your society if you don’t understand the REASONS for moral acts. The young man I quoted at the beginning of this essay had no way to think about morality beyond "I have to do what my god says."

Worse, contained within the question he asked, a question suggested by everything he’d ever been taught by his religion, was the statement that the natural desire of human beings is to rob and rape others, and the only thing restraining them is their good Christian faith.

Freighted within that question is the clear implication that compassion, love, charity, tenderness and decency are unnatural, alien traits to humans, and become available ONLY after you start to believe in his god. For this guy, everyone outside his religion is automatically bad.

Knowing nothing of the nature of morality, he might live his entire life blindly following rules handed down to him by others (which might be anything from "Open doors for old people" to — I kid you not — "Cut your wife’s throat if she allows another man to see her bare face"), and he would neither be able to teach an adequate moral code to others nor be able to respond himself to some new situation requiring moral judgment.

He would never ask himself what’s good about being good. He would never be able to understand that people with different beliefs can be as good as he is.

and this idiot:

Friends, if you're going to be atheists, start thinking and acting like it. Get rid of your own irrational beliefs and embrace the world as you say it is: a purely physical and random place where goodness and evil don't really exist and where the rules set down by organized religion and thousands of years of human history are no more meaningful than two rocks colliding at the bottom of a mountain after an avalanche.

What I learned from my foray into disbelief was that most atheists have it all wrong. They've merely substituted their own irrational belief system for the one I was given from 2,000 years ago.

One of my friends told me the other night that he had stopped to help a stranded motorist.

"Why would you do that?" I asked.

"Because it was the right thing to do. She needed help."

"But," I protested, "that doesn't make any sense. You wasted your time and efforts on a complete stranger, and for what? You got nothing out of it. You should have kept right on driving."

He gave me a puzzled look.

What I meant to say is that God is the basis for good and evil, and once you reject him and his rules, you're left with nothing but self-serving and self-preservation. In short, you're left with being your own god.

It's funny. Calling my beliefs irrational hasn't kept virtually all of my non-believing friends from coming up with a set of beliefs on their own. They find them in tradition, in rational thought, in politics, in philosophy, in the moon and the stars, in Tarot cards and even in the cookies where they get their Chinese takeout.

They seem to need something, even if they don't know what it is, to guide their lives.

It seems to me, as a rational man as well as a Christian, that those thoughts are irrational and should be discarded immediately by any right-thinking atheist. I'm puzzled why they cling to something so silly. For them, life should be merely an exercise in seeking personal pleasure, procreating and then dying.

When I talk to my students about right and wrong - obeying the laws, for a start - some of them will quickly say, "It's only wrong if you get caught."

That's right! In a non-believer's world, self is all that matters. Don't stop to help others. Don't give anything to charity. Don't let your conscience be your guide.

If it feels good, do it, because it doesn't matter anyway. Nothing matters. To put ourselves above the animal kingdom without the existence and rules of a creator is just plain silly. Like dogs and cats and mosquitoes, atheists should embrace their freedom and act accordingly.

Some people already do that. We call them sociopaths, but maybe that's too harsh.

and what with the major changes in my own family, which I’m NOT getting into here, I’ve been thinking more deeply about just why I don’t believe: how I got to where I am.

Part II:

My father was raised Pentecostal. My mother came from a nice (if that’s not a contradiction, which it may well be) Indiana Christian Church of some sort. When I was little, neither went to church. My father had kicked loose from Jesus in his teens, gone to drinking that beer and smoking them cigarettes; my mother followed him as she always did.

When we moved to New Orleans, though, my mother wanted a church for her three kids, because, well, kids need Bible School and like that. So she took us to a nearby church, Disciples of Christ, because, I think, it was nearby. Those of you who know Disciples of Christ know how liberal it is. At least how liberal it can be. (Jim Jones was a Disciples of Christ guy.) Our church was liberal, mostly. The preacher when I was there had a beard and wore sandals and had a live-in sweetie.

Nevertheless: I never bought it.

It wasn’t terrible, when I was little, because my mother never took the whole church deal seriously. She figured kids needed Sunday school, and now and then she took us.

But when I was about ten, one of my father’s friends died of a heart attack, and bam, he panicked. He got Jesus again with a vengeance. And we were in church every time they cracked the door. And he wanted us to get Jesus too. Including, yikes, me.

Well, fucking shit. That was not going to work.

I was eleven at this point. I had, in fact, just discovered Darwin. And science fiction. It was no way I was giving up rational thought and Enlightenment values for mystical goofiness and accepting Jesus into my soul and the blood of the fucking Lamb.

But my father insisted.

He insisted I attend church. He insisted I attend Sunday school. He wouldn’t let me read anything in church, either, except the Bible—which actually turned out to be a good thing, in the long run, because, since the church service was endless, and since we attended every single service, and all the other meetings too, I read that sucker cover to cover, and more than once. I didn’t have a commentary, not back then, but I did have the spirit of scientific inquiry and I didn’t have one bit of trouble taking note of all the problems in that text. Didn’t help that I’d also spent a good part of my childhood reading Greek and Roman and Norse mythology. And I wasn’t shy about raising questions in Sunday school class, either. Not that it did me any good. My teachers either failed to understand the question I was asking, or simply ignored the question entirely. “Well, delagar,” they would say, sweetly, “we can pick apart anything if we try, can’t we?”

When I was sixteen, I refused to return to church. This was the first real fight I ever had with my father.

Why? he wanted to know. Why? What was so evil about Jesus?

Nothing, I told him. I just didn’t believe any of that and I was sick of having to sit there and pretend I did.

Maybe if you put something into it, he said, you would get something out of it.

I don’t believe it exists, I yelled at him. It isn’t real. Why should I put anything into a lie?

Now mind you: mind you: at this point I did not believe he believed it either. At this point, when I was sixteen, I was certain that he and every other adult on the planet, that they were all just pretending to believe this stupid lie. I knew this for a fact. I mean, how could anyone believe something so stupid as God? Obviously they were all lying.

I remember, though, now, in retrospect how he stared at me. Exactly the way my students in North Carolina stared at me. As though I had suddenly spoken in French.

It had never entered my father’s head that someone could not believe in God.

Defy God, yes. Break away from God, of course. But disbelieve in God? How?

Then he blinked and dismissed it. Didn’t hear it. I hadn’t said it.

“I’m not going to force you,” he began, “but--”

“Good,” I said, before he could go on: exploiting that tactical error. “Then I’m not going anymore.”

I slammed the door on my way out too.

Ha. And ho.

It was the first fight I won with my father. Not the last.

Part III.

Later, I met mr. delagar. Later, we had the kid. As long-time readers of this blog know, mr. delagar is Jewish – a deli Jew, he says. I never converted, because of the whole God thing, but I’ve become what I’ve come to think of as culturally Jewish, since I married him (under the chupah, married by Rabbi Mikki, a six-foot bone-skinny woman rabbi, whom my father approved of heartily, because, like him, she ran marathons), and since we had the kid. Ethically Jewish, in that I follow the Jewish ethos. And we teach the kid the Jewish life.

The Jewish ethos makes so much more sense to me than the Christian ethos ever did. I’m happier in this religion – although I don’t know that you can call what we do in the delagar household a religion, exactly, since we never go to temple – than I ever was in the Christian religion.

Jews live in this world. (Or at least our sort of Jews do.) Jews believe in mending this world, in helping those who live here, in being here now. The Jewish religion focuses on this life. And the Jewish religion is not about all about sin and hell and burning for all eternity if you don’t do what the Magic Daddy says (though, as mr. delagar points out, there is a lot about rules and rules and rules and getting every single thing right if you want to please God. It’s the perfect religion for the fellow with OCD, mr. delagar says. But since we’re not good Jews, we don’t get so nervous about every one of the rules – though recently mr. delagar has quit eating pork. Which does make me a bit nervous. On the other hand, you don’t burn in hell forever if you eat pork. You just annoy God. And that’s not polite.)

And then there’s Rabbi Hillel. You have to love a religion that has Rabbi Hillel in it. “Don’t do to someone else what you wouldn’t want that fella to do to you. That’s the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Now get outta here, son.”

So what do I believe?

The tree is here because it evolved, like the rest of us.

And I’m with Hillel – we ought to treat each other right. That’s our job, as fellow humans.

Unlike Hillel, though, probably, I don’t believe we ought to do that because God said to do it*. I think we ought to do it for the reason Plato said we should: because when we treat one another well, we make the world a better place. (Hillel believed this part too, of course: it’s part of Tikkun Olem, the mending the world idea.) And when we make the world a better place, we have a better place to live in. It’s the Enlightenment worldview. It’s the rational worldview. That it’s also the Jewish worldview just tells me the Jews are a sane folk.

(Notice Jesus said the same thing – treat your neighbors nicely. I’m pretty sure he said it was one of the most important things to do, didn’t he? I think I remember reading that SOMEWHERE. I’m pretty sure he ranked it way above, say, hating the homos. And if the Christians would do it, I’d have no problem with Christianity. And I have no problem, BTW, with Christian who do do it. It’s the ones who believe that God wants them to bomb the bejesus out of other countries and rape the earth and beat their children and take birth control away from women that I have a problem with.)

I also believe what we do matters. Individual action matters. It’s not up to some magic sky-God to fix the world: if we want the world fixed, we better fix it. Conversely, if we make a mess, no one is going to step in and tidy it away for us. So frankly? We need to watch our steps, here. We can’t charge about driving Hummers and having nine babies per family and cutting down the rain forest and thinking we can pray a bit and Jesus will make it okay. We have to make it okay. And we better start.

Finally, I also can’t see why so many religious folk want to spend their entire lives – the only lives they know for a fact they are going to have – fretting about some mythical after-life, some world that doesn’t exist, instead of living here, in this life that does.

But hey. That’s their business.

*Hillel, btw, said once you didn't have to believe in God. Follow the Torah, he said. Do that first, he said: act right, he said, because that's what matters most, and belief in God will follow from that. (I'm paraphrasing.)


zelda1 said...

It amazed my sister when my son was so ill that I didn't call the preacher. The preacher being the preacher who preaches at the church where I grew up. I told her why, and she said to pray, and I say why, and she said to heal my son, and I said, he was healed without prayer. Then I said, if there is a god, do you think he would have time to worry about one person in the ER in Fayetteville Arkansas when our country is over there killing gods know how many innocent men, women, and children. Don't you think he might be a little bit worried about the way we are destroying the world's atomosphere, the ecological system and on and on. She said, You will burn in hell. I said, don't believe in it. Now, the only sister that I really ever speak to, I'm thinking she is going to be pissed at me for a really long tim. HMMMM.

Cynthia said...

Amen! Preach it, sister!

Mouse said...

I agree.

Diane said...

The problem with discussions about God or any transcendence is that the terms are rarely defined; people just assume that you know what they mean. But not everyone who includes God in her life is talking about the ridiculous god of this religion or that religion. Certainly anyone with any sense rejects those gods, which are not about transcendence at all.

But a theological discussion about Mystery and the character of transcendence can be riveting and enlightening. I have been in one for several years with an agnostic priest, and I would not trade it for anything. Unfortunately, most people are not prepared to discuss anything that goes an inch below the surface of what our culture calls "religion."