Friday, September 28, 2007

The roof! The roof! The roof is on fire!

Years ago, when I used to frequent online discussion groups and had no blog, I had a rather interesting experience in a discussion group on atheism. Being open about the fact that I was a Christian, I got a bit of hostility from the other posters, as is to be expected. I did reassure everyone that I was not there to preach unless asked to, as I was sure they received more than enough people wandering through to explain to them the great peril they were in due to the wrath of God, and I probably had little to add to the discussion. I'd come to discuss some other matter that I no longer recall, but in the midst of the hostility that largely died down once I had made my intentions clear, there was one poster to the group that asked me what I thought to be a surprising question.

He thanked me for not wanting to preach, but he asked me in curiosity why it is that so many Christians are so preachy. Really it had never occurred to me that a person in the midst of our western culture might not know the answer to that one. To my surprise (and some amusement), after I had explained it to him, he became angry again. Although I had done nothing to convince him of the truth of Christianity (and indeed, most likely he is still an atheist to this day) he was furious no longer at the audacity of Christians who preach to unbelievers, but instead at the audacity of Christians who do not preach! This was a strange 180-degree turn I'd never seen before, and have not seen since, but on some level, it makes sense.

There's a popular metaphor used by many Christians in response to inquiries about the purpose of preaching the Gospel and proselytizing in general; it may have been the one I used that day. You see, it's like this: Suppose you are walking along in the street and you see someone sitting in the window of a house that's on fire. He clearly has no idea his house is on fire, because he's sitting there complacently reading a book or watching television or what have you. What do you do? Do you try and get his attention and let him know he's in danger, or do you leave him alone, because you don't want to annoy a stranger? Well, most likely you try and let him know that he's in trouble, right?

You wave your arms, you shout, you throw pebbles at the window, until finally, he comes to the window and exasperatedly asks, "What the heck is it you want?!" Upon informing him that his house is burning, rather than gratefully thanking you for your help and running outside, he looks around. He smells no smoke. He sees no flames. He decides you're a lunatic and tells you to go away and stop bothering him. Now you can do that, or you can stay there and shout and insist to him that truly his house is on fire, and he must get out, now! Eventually, you're either going to save the guy's life, or he's going to get really annoyed at you up until the point he burns to death, and then it's too late.

This is a popular metaphor, and indeed, some people do think of it being literally true, but in a spiritual sense. After all, if you're not saved, then supposedly day by day the flames of Hell are creeping closer and closer to you, until the day comes that you will die and they will consume you.

There's a real problem with this metaphor, though. In a practical sense, if you were in a real-life situation similar to the one presented in in the metaphor, you could always in a last resort enter the house, overpower the occupant and drag them out to the street where the flames would be visible. You could call the fire department to come and put out the fire, for that matter. But the metaphor doesn't stretch quite that far.

How do you drag someone out of a metaphorical burning building?

It's a truth, be it fortunate or unfortunate, that you simply can't make someone believe in something. You can show someone evidence, you can plead with them, you can threaten them, but in the end, people believe what they choose to believe.

It's odd, but I actually feel like I understand fanatics who burn down churches or blow up abortion clinics or suicide bomb buses or what have you. Surely there's a feeling that something is so wrong with the world, or at least a particular part of the world, that the only thing to do is to lash out in violence. But if you burn down a church, you're not going to change the personal beliefs of a single member of that church; blow up an abortion clinic, and you're not going to stop a single woman from getting an abortion; get on a bus in Tel Aviv with explosives tied to you and wipe the thing off the face of the earth, and the nation of Israel will continue to exist. In cases like these, violence is not just wrong, it's pointless! But at the same time, I get the sense of desperation that no doubt drives these people to behave in such an irrational fashion. When something is perceived to be wrong with the world, we want to act to make things right.

Yet unfortunately it is exactly in these areas of life where people are driven to extremes that these extremes serve no purpose. You can't force belief on others, you can't force morality. Blow things up, drive people out of physically burning buildings, and still most likely they will stay in the exact same place mentally they have always been. In the end, all you can really do is share your beliefs and pray.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Racing From Elevators

BTW, as a quick side note that I've been meaning to mention, I remembered the other day that the movie Rat Race has an instance of "running from elevators". At a point somewhere around fifteen minutes into the film, most of the main characters are standing in an elevator lobby near the top of a tall building, waiting for the elevator to come up. One by one, they decide in a panic to take the stairs rather than waiting for the elevator to arrive.

Would the congregation please rise...

YORK, Pa. (AP) - September 12, 2007 - A York County judge says a man ordained over the Internet can't perform a legal wedding in Pennsylvania. That's because the Universal Life Church minister doesn't have a congregation that he meets with regularly or a place of worship. The church is planning to challenge the ruling. A church official says accepting some ministers but not others is arbitrary and violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
Someone tell me whether I'm allowed to post the whole of an AP story without permission, which I have done here. (If not, I'll remove it, and leave a link instead.) I just had to talk about this one. I'm actually quite surprised that in a web search on this, it was actually so hard to find. In my mind, this is one of the top stories of the week, but then of course, I know that I am obsessed with issues having to do with religion in the culture, so it's probably just me.

It's quite possible that someone reading may not have heard of the Universal Life Church. I don't know how well-known they are, but they're pretty easy to sum up. Essentially, the ULC is a church simply for the sake of being a church. Seriously. They are a church with no tenets or rules whatsoever, and the thing they are best known for is that they will ordain people as ministers if you send them a self-addressed stamped envelope. Actually, I don't think even that much effort is necessary. Nope, it isn't: I just got ordained in less time it took me to cut and paste the article above. Seriously. I'm a freakin' minister now.

Their site features a new option to confess sins online, and to my surprise, a list of ULC congregations, which I did not know to exist. (Perhaps they're just made up? Names of local congregations include "Desert Rainbow Phundamentalists", "Our Divine Coven", and "Church of Drawing".) But enough about the ULC, you could almost read about it on their own site in less time than you could read my own ramblings about it. I've got a point or two I wanted to make about the story.

Okay, so the ULC is a fake church--so to speak. As they themselves point out, legally they are a church in some sort of technical sense that I'm not going to bother to figure out, but anyone who takes a moment or two to familiarize himself with the "church" realizes that it's in essence a bunch of crap. But that does not mean that the ruling of this judge is right.

Let's face it; as I and others have said so rightly before, faith is a very personal thing. What could possibly give the government the right to step in and say that any particular faith is bullshit, even and perhaps especially when it's so very obviously the case? Since when was it required that a minister had to have a group of followers to be a minister? Why is it that you can have a wedding performed by a justice of the peace or the captain of a ship or various other people in specialized positions, but as a "minister", you only qualify if you have followers? (Surely a minister who is performing a wedding has in theory at least two followers, right?)

This news story is possibly a landmark in the history of the separation of church and state, but it occurred to me that there may be an implication here that strikes to the heart of another issue: same-sex marriage. I feel like I've said it here before, but I can't find it in any post so at the risk of repeating myself, let me give you my fantasy resolution to the same-sex marriage issue. A number of the people who oppose same-sex marriage claim that it's a religious issue, and that God ordained it to be so that marriage was to be between one man and one woman. In my mind, if that is so (and I personally believe it myself) then it follows that if the government has no right to meddle in the matter of marriage since it's a religious issue, then they should get right out of the marriage business! Everyone always says to me, "You're nuts, that would never happen!" and I know it's not realistic, but really, I'd like to see not only same-sex marriage banned from ever becoming legal, but I'd like all laws pertaining to the institution of marriage, regardless of the gender(s) of the parties involved, to be simply dissolved.

There came a time about three years into my own marriage where my wife and I had need of a copy of our marriage certificate (I think perhaps it had something to do with Social Security records), and could not find one. We realized that neither of us had ever seen our marriage certificate, and wondered if in fact it existed. My wife was worried about this; I was not. I told her that I had married her by giving a vow to God, not a vow to the government. If the government did not have a piece of paper recording that vow, it mattered very little to me.

Anyway, I find myself wondering if people are using their ULC ordinations to perform same-sex marriages? If not, despite the fact that I said above that I oppose legalization of it, I think people should be. If you really believe that the government has no right to tell you who you can or cannot spend your life with, then why fight? It reminds me of a principle of Buddhism that I have talked about in this blog before, that if the world is an illusion, then there is no point striving against an illusion, simply ignore it and seek enlightenment.

It's a small story, one hardly noticed in the press at all, and yet, there's something potentially profound here. Even though the ULC is not really a religion in any practical sense, it cuts to the heart of the bizarreness of what happens when we try to have a non-religious government that meddles in religion. This may lead to a place where the government is more entwined with religion than ever before, or it may lead to the exact opposite. Who can say, but I'm sure we all can hope, right?

And some of us can become ministers, I suppose...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

What's logic got to do with it?

I suppose I spend a lot of my spare time and energy arguing that faith is a good and rational thing. Heck, it's essentially the point of my other blog, if not expressly stated, then at least in fairly obvious subtext. I have a hard time sitting back while I hear people disparage (more or less) faith by describing it as something like "belief in that which has no evidence". I'm sure I've railed on it before, if not here then in countless other venues of public expression. And yet, I'm going to take a moment to say a few things that are a baby step if not a leap in the other direction.

I remember back in my early college days, there came a time when I began to describe myself as a Christian, although in truth, I no longer consider myself to have been one at the time. The stage of personal belief I was at was that I had recently taken the time to read the New Testament for the first time, and I was impressed with what I read. There was definitely something to Christ and his early followers, and I became convinced that Christianity was Truth-with-a-capital-T as one says, and Christians were not (necessarily) idiots following nonsense blindly.

At the same time, I remember an odd moment when I was hanging out with my Christian friends, and I saw something odd. It was one of those things you can't quite explain, you just experience it, and somehow it seems right. One of the young women in my group of Christian friends was looking at another discussing some theological point, and I saw an odd gleam in her eye. At that moment I was surprised and oddly convinced that this woman was completely insane. There was something unsettling and unbalanced in that gleam, and it gave me a thought. Maybe you have to be just a little bit insane to really, truly believe in God. Not to say that belief in God was a delusion of one's insanity, but that God, being the sort of being that He is supposed to be, so totally foreign to our mundane experiences of daily life, somehow causes a sort of mental short circuit when His presence invades our consciousness.

As I write on this, it sounds a bit in the same vein as some of my previous musings on the nature of the soul, and a Christian who followed that and understood it might think I'm talking about some sort of physical analogue to the concept of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but that's not what I'm talking about at all. I think this sort of short circuit (if indeed that is what it is) happens quite naturally, and to people of all sorts of faith. It's related to the idea espoused above that faith is a belief without evidence, but in this case, it's belief in that which is not completely logical. We live in a natural world, how can we be completely sane and yet accept the existence of the supernatural, in whatever form we might believe in it?

Yet there is a problem coming at this from the side of the skeptics and atheists. I think atheists are quite aware of this, and in reading the above, no doubt they nod their heads and say, "Finally, this Brucker guy is making sense!" There is definitely a belief among such people that there is nothing more illogical than belief in the supernatural. Nonetheless, I would like to say (and finally come to the main point of this writing--aren't essays supposed to start with the point and expand on it instead of building to it? I'm a really crappy writer sometimes...) that this is not what I am saying at all. Despite all I have said here, I still claim that faith is not illogical.

I wish to coin a term here, sort of. It's not in the dictionary, although a search on Google turns up nearly 60,000 hits, so perhaps the idea is not so new. I believe that faith is "nonlogical". In case you don't immediately grasp the term from its own form, consider this: It's logical to believe that 1+1=2. It's illogical to believe that 1+1=3. It's nonlogical to believe that 1+1 is possibly a symbolic representation of a concept such as human relationships. "Nonlogical" is the idea that something might be impossible to arrive at through logical reasoning, yet also there is no logical reasoning that can completely dismiss that something. Faith, love, beauty: these things have a truth-value based not on scientific principles or clear-cut definitions of tangible value, but simply stand on their own.

The fact is, there are statements about the world that are simply true, and other statements about the world that are simply false, but many, many statements about the world are in a gray area in between. That fictional champion of logic, "Star Trek's" Spock once said: "Logic is the beginning of wisdom...not the end." Logic can take you far in life, but it was something I realized back in those days and still remember, that in a journey to Truth-with-a-capital-T, there comes a point where logic comes to the end of itself and says, "I can take you no further." Some people get to that point and they let go of logic's hand and walk forward into the darkness. Some people get there and insist that there must simply be nothing more. Still, logic can't really tell you which one is right, can it?