On Christmas

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Birth of Jesus Matthew 2:1

Birth of Jesus Matthew 2:1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think my favorite Christmas special is the Charlie Brown Special, in which Linus reads from the Gospel of Luke–the story of “what Christmas is all about,” and at the end the children sing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” The theme of the show was against the commercialization of Christmas. That trend has continued to the point that for retailers, “Christmas” begins in September. That is a shame. For Western Catholic Christians, Christmas begins December 25 and continues until January 5, and then there is the Feast of the Epiphany (the coming of the Wise Men) on January 6. The time before Christmas is Advent, a time of preparation for the coming of Christ, with the focus being on the Second Coming more than the first.

For orthodox Christians of whatever stripe, Christmas is about the coming of God into man, in which God Himself, the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, was born as a baby in a manger over 2000 years ago. The notion of a being who is fully God, fully man is an offense to many in the intellectual classes–Kierkegaard recognized this in his writings. The belief seems absurd. Yet the Christian faith teaches the coming of the eternal into time, the infinite into the finite, the God-man. Because of that, sin and death are overcome and human beings have not only the hope of salvation from sin, but of salvation from death. Salvation is far more valuable than anything than Santa Claus can bring! I have no problem with children believing in Santa Claus as long as they are taught the true meaning of Christmas–God, born like the rest of us, as a newborn baby who grew up, struggled as we do with temptation, taught a “more excellent way,” was crucified, died, and was buried, and was raised from the dead. Now God the Son remains incarnate, fully God, fully man, for all time. It is an incredible message, that is for sure. I believe it to be true. For those readers who also believe it to be true, consider the wonder of it and thank God for the gift of Himself for us.

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Anger at God

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A cat on a grave in Pere Lachaise Cemetery

A cat on a grave in Pere Lachaise Cemetery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cover of "A Grief Observed"

Cover of A Grief Observed

Sam was a wonderful cat–a yellow and white tabby whose fur matched that of Sienna, a sweet cat whom I really loved, who sat on my leg at night when I lay down on the couch and was by my side when I woke up in the morning. Sadly, she had multiple health problems and had terminal kidney failure for which she had to be put to sleep. From the start, Sam was every bit as sweet as Sienna. He’d virtually clamp to my side every morning and I’d reach over and rub the smooth white fur on his belly. Then he started having urinary problems. Two surgeries, which would have cured 98% of all cats with his condition (crystals blocking a narrow urethra, causing damage resulting in massive scar tissue growth) did not sure Sam. I was so upset when he was put to sleep (he was only five and a half years old)I could barely function. I was also furious–at God. It wasn’t that long before Sam died that I had lost my best friend to breast cancer–a woman who ate well, exercised, took care of herself, and died at 46. The two deaths so close together infuriated me, and the object of my anger was God.

God took our first cat, Liebchen, a real ornery character who still loved us; within a month He took Sienna. Then He took my best friend, then Sam. I was so furious I called God about every name from the depths of hell. I imagined that God became incarnate in a human body so He could “enjoy” Himself when animals and people, especially children, suffered. I mocked the design argument, pointing to the windpipe and esophagus having one entrance with only a flap making the difference between life and death. No human designer would be stupid and incompetent enough to make such a system. Evolution seemed cruel and arbitrary, and if there was a God, He seemed a cold, uncaring b…rd.

Some people were horrified when they heard my thoughts, saying I would go to hell–that helped me a great deal–to increase my anger. Some people understood, including some Christians, thank God. I remembered the book of Job, which some Christians conveniently forget–or they do not read it carefully. Job is faithful to God, yet is clearly angry at God. He believes God is behaving in an arbitrary way toward him–“if it is not He, who is it” who is causing his suffering. Even after that, God says that what Job said regarding Him was “right.” This does not suggest, as some suggest, that there is an evil part of God, but it does suggest that God understands human anger–it often does seem as if the universe is unjust, uncaring–and that Stephen Crane‘s conception of nature as not giving a d..m about humanity is correct. The only plausible answer to the mystery of evil is eschatological. That seems inadequate for many atheists, agnostics, and even theists. Dostoevsky understood that unless somehow the pain and suffering of this life were rectified in an afterlife one could, with some justice, blaspheme God.

I was falling apart to the point that my work was suffering when I saw Sam lying on the other side of the bed one night. I was neither asleep nor obviously dreaming. I reached over, touched the soft fur, and watched him slowly fade away. I have seen him two times since then. I think it was a true visitation, though skeptics will have their own answers. It helped me get on my feet and mitigated my anger at God. God and I still have a love-hate relationship (on my part–God is love so He cannot hate). But without God, nothing is redeemed, and all the suffering and pain of humans and animals from the dawn of evolution until the present is ultimately worthless. I’d rather be angry at times at the only Source of meaning rather than be indifferent.

Christians should not condemn someone’s anger at God, but should bear with the person since most of the time the anger is temporary. Give positive advice at an emotional level–do not condemn the person who is angry to hell. It’s not your call in any case. Suggest books such as C. S. Lewis‘s, A Grief Observed and Nicholas Wolterstorff‘s Lament for a Son. Too many Christians have driven doubters and those angry with God permanently from the faith by their legalism. If you are angry with God, realize that such anger may not be permanent–it is best that it not be permanent, for that would lead to the bitterness of total lack of faith and a sense of meaninglessness in life. If a Christian is legalistic about your anger, confront him–let the person know that he is responding in an inappropriate way. Be patient with yourself and with others–only then can one day, perhaps you can be patient with God when bad things happen.

I Pray for a Better 2011

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New year - which direction?

Image by randihausken via Flickr

Another year has passed, and the older I get, the faster time seems to pass. I pray that the world will be a better place in 2011 than it was in 2010. As a Christian, I am thrilled by the rapid spread of Christianity in Africa–and African Christians, unlike American Christians, can pay a steep price for their faith. Their dedication in facing persecution, in walking twenty or more miles in the mud to get to church, is a model for all of us to follow.

I pray that there will be fewer wars and that the American people will wake up to the power of what President Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex.”

I pray for the unborn, that God would protect them from the scourge of abortion. I pray for marriage–that it will continue as a permanent union between one man and one woman. I pray for parents to be good fathers and mothers, to be affectionate for their children, to praise them when they do well, and discipline them when they do wrong. I pray that the trend toward physician-assisted suicide and toward active euthanasia will be reversed. I pray that Americans realize that older people have just as much intrinsic value as young people–and they often have more wisdom.

I pray that colleges and universities will recover some of the sanity that they once have. I pray that young people will learn the great classics of literature, philosophy, and religion. I pray that more traditional Christians strive for teaching and research careers in higher education.

I pray that the American people will take more responsibility for their actions and not blame others for all their misfortunes. I pray for greater courtesy between people. I pray that mediating institutions that stand between the person and the state–churches, civic organizations, and clubs–will grow and prosper. I pray that Americans realize that there is a life beyond both big government and big business.

I pray that we all stop and enjoy the beauty of nature, that we realize that environmentalism is not contrary to Christianity, but recognizes the goodness of the earth and the plants and animals God created. I pray for less cruelty toward animals, that people realize that humans are not the only animals with intrinsic value, that even if humans have more value than other animals, that does not imply that animals be mistreated. I pray for more free range animals and fewer factory farms. I pray that people treasure their pets, and I pray that God in His mercy will raise them from the dead when He reconstitutes the world in a perfect form.

I pray for the salvation of all people, recognizing that there is a possibility of eternal damnation–I pray, though, that Hell will be empty. I pray that we will forgive without excusing, mete justice but balance it with mercy when mercy is warranted. I pray that Americans will realize that people are more important than material possessions, that the accumulation of riches alone will never make a person happy. I pray that all people will strive to have virtuous characters, and that God will reach down and touch the most damaged of souls, all those with intractable vices or mental illness, all those who suffer from the sin of narcissism, those who suffer from borderline personality disorder, even those who are psychopaths.

I pray that the New Atheism will show forth its shallowness and not convince people that God does not exist.

I pray for the success of Sam Parnia’s study of Near-Death Experiences, that his findings will suggest that a spiritual realm truly does exist.

I pray for my family, my friends, for every person that they will cooperate with God’s grace to become all they are meant to be. And to the readers of this blog, may God’s richest blessings descend on you in 2011.

The Emptiness of Atheism

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Atheism symbol

Image via Wikipedia

Imagine a world with no objective values. In this world, people who get away with horrific crimes such as child abuse, rape, and murder never find justice. It is a world in which there is no meaning over and above individual or societal whims. In this world, people seek their own pleasure without boundaries. If sex between men and men, between women and women, or between people and animals satisfies someone, there is no law in this world that could condemn it other than someone’s individual moral whims. And if something inconvenient gets in the way of one’s pleasure, such as a pregnancy, in this world a woman can find a “doctor” to murder her baby under the full protection of the law.

All that ultimately exists in this world is matter and energy. Human beings evolved not under God‘s guiding or planning or creating the evolutionary process, but through chance and necessity alone. They are an accident in a meaningless universe. Death is annihilation. Any good someone does for mankind will ultimately dissolve, as Bertrand Russell noted, when this meaningless universe ceases to be. Or as the American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft recognized, this universe is similar to one ruled by a blind god of cosmic chaos, with monsters dancing to dissonant music around a mindless center.

This is the world more and more Americans are living in. It is the world of many academics, the world of many East Coast intellectual elites, and the world of many who work in Hollywood. It is the utterly empty world of atheism.

Although books on atheism abound these days, they mainly mock the excesses and evils of religion without recognizing the greater evils caused by atheistic systems. Nazism and Communism reeked havoc on Europe before both were defeated. But in their place has arisen a consumer society that values “the sweet life” that only ends in nothingness. How, then, is it “sweet.” The atheistic existentialists such as Sartre and Camus were at least honest enough to admit the loss of objective meaning in atheism. They tried to make up for it by saying that a person should find his own meaning in life–but this will ultimately end in coming to naught. So one is left only with Sisyphus and his rock, making his own meaning out of meaninglessness. Even the atheistic existentialists, then, remain in denial–what good will “finding one’s own meaning” do if it all ends in cosmic emptiness?

In the world of atheism there is no ultimate justice. Mass murderers and torturers die in peace, then only face the same nothingness that a saint such as Mother Theresa will face. Is this world fair, or is it one, as Nietzsche said, that is “beyond good and evil”?

I am amazed at atheists saying that they do not fear the annihilation of death. It is not just the annihilation of the self, not being conscious at all that is the issue–it is the annihilation of all beloved family members and friends. But if there is an all-powerful and all-good God who loves us enough to grant us an undeserved eternal life, all will be redeemed and made good. Without such a God, without an afterlife, what is left? “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die,” as St. Paul put it. If I were an atheist, I would be a moderate hedonist, gaining as much pleasure as I could while not doing things destructive to my health. I remember a liberal Protestant once becoming furious at me for saying that–but his fury means nothing–if there is no God, no afterlife, no accounting for one’s deeds other than for illegal actions for which we are caught, why not seek all the pleasure we can? “Live for today,” “Eat, drink, and be merry,” “You only go around once in life, so grab for all the gusto you can.” The only problem is that “gusto” will end, perhaps peacefully, perhaps (sadly) in pain and agony, but if atheism is true, humans are ultimately nothing but bits of second-hand stardust who will recycled in the meaningless processes of nature.

For an intellectually honest person, atheism is a road to madness and horror. I choose to believe in God, in a universe that is ultimately good, a universe in which there is cosmic justice, in which good will triumph over evil, in which there is real, objective meaning in life, and in which God will grant us–out of sheer grace–the gift of eternal life.

 

Existential Emptiness and Drug Abuse

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Miguel de Unamuno

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One reason the so-called “War on Drugs” will not work is that it applies the criminal justice system to solve a problem that is not primarily a criminal justice matter. The crisis of drug use in the United States is not a crisis of criminality, but a crisis of emptiness. The U. S. was founded on an individualistic creed. As long as individualism was stemmed by families, neighborhoods, churches, and other community organizations, people were able to move outside themselves, love their families, make friends, and have a core set of values that gave meaning to their lives. With traditional religion, which was community-oriented, on the decline in favor of irreligion, or at best, a poorly defined individualistic “spirituality,” the core set of values that gave meaning to the lives of millions of people are no longer accepted. Beliefs in a God to whom people are responsible, a community of faith focused on worshipping that God and reaching out to neighbors, and a life after death that implies our lives do not end in utter annihilation, are fast fading. The United States strives to become more like secular Europe every day. Other institutions, such as the family, have broken down in many places, with little hope for recovery. This leads to neighborhoods of strangers and a world in which people are wedded to their computer screens and rarely get out to actually visit and talk to people.

The result is an existential crisis. People who cannot reach outside themselves either turn to their own selfish desires or are so lonely and empty that they turn to drugs to hide the pain. With no meaning in life and no hope for an afterlife, people seek cheap thrills–and what better cheap thrill than to stay at home getting the high of one’s life. Then the drug’s effect fades, the pain returns, and a person says, “I will seek it yet again.” People pretend to enjoy life , pretend to be happy, but these claims are sometimes belied by the massive abuse of alcohol, marijuana, and hard drugs–why depend on these false gods if one is truly happy. Now I think marijuana should be legal, not because I support people using it for recreation only (instead of medicinal use) but because it is a waste of time to criminalize a drug that is no more harmful than alcohol. Yet I would not want a society of individuals high on pot. Pot is an escape. Alcohol can be an escape. Cocaine, heroin, LSD, DMT, ketamine–all these drugs and many more mask the despair of contemporary man. Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus were right to note this despair, but their atheism led them to support an individual’s pursuit of one’s own freely chosen goal as the ultimate meaning for that person’s life–there is no objective meaning. But if there is no objective meaning, why not escape life by using drugs? Material things offer only a temporary comfort. Relationships, unanchored in community, are relationships of convenience. Religion is rejected outright, or else some neo-Gnostic version of self-fulfillment is tried. All that is left are shells of people, like the woman in Miguel de Unamuno‘s book, Tragic Sense of Life, who raises her hands off her face when she is sitting on a park bench, revealing that she has no face at all. This is the horror of the lonely, empty American seeking one thrill after another and finally trying to maintain a chemical high.

The only way to solve the drug problem is at its source. Community should be restored, transcendent values encouraged, and people encouraged to seek more than their own selfish wants and reach outside themselves to their families, their neighbors, and their God. If we keep on using traditional law enforcement and the legal system to put out the fire of drugs, all that will result is small patches that the fire can easily jump. Hopefully communities will do what they can to restore stable families, encourage friendships, and support religion, if for no other reason than to fill the emptiness of people with the transcendent, something wholly other, something ultimately outside their own narrow self-interest, something that is Love Itself.