Tag Archives: religion

Taking Civil Religion Too Far

28 Jun

I’m a firm believer that faith in America and the values we claim to represent (whether we live up to them or not) is a good thing. This is called civil religion. But if you say the Constitution is “divinely inspired,” you may be taking it too far.

It is a tenet of my faith that the Constitution is divinely inspired — one of my most basic foundational beliefs. For me to do that because somebody asked me to is foreign to my very being. I will not do it.

Rusty Bowers, June 21st, 2022, when speaking in front of the January 6th Congressional Hearing.

Okay, let’s walk past joking about a guy named “Rusty,” or the reason behind Bowers’s quote (which is really fascinating), and go right to the quote itself. Rusty is the Speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives (yeah, my state) and is a proud Mormon (not unusual–lots of LDS in Arizona). The man has morals, swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, and I salute him for that. But I had to look this up; apparently, this is NOT Rusty’s personal opinion. This is a teaching by one of the current LDS apostles–Dallin Oaks–who first put it forward in 1992 and recently preached about it at the general conference last year (2021).

In his speech/article, The Divine Inspired Constitution, the argument goes something like this. God has ordained faithful men to rule us and they formed the Constitution to protect our rights, ergo, it’s divinely inspired. However, even Apostle Oaks didn’t make this leap of faith (ha, ha); this is direct from Joseph Smith’s own hand.

And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood.

Doctrine and Covenants 101:80

If you’re a Mormon, the D&C is just as valuable as the Book of Mormon (although some Mormons can feel free to correct me), “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3: 16-17) I wrote a whole thing about granting to “Caesar what is Caesar’s,” (Mark 12:17) but since the LDS church started here, it makes a kind of sense that there would be a equating America with the Promised Land… because it literally is. Jesus will come back to Earth at Independence, Missouri. (D&C 84: 2-3)

Okay, I disagree with this view, but it does bring up some questions of faith. If you amend the Constitution, are you tampering with God’s plan? Are the Supreme Court justices also divinely inspired when they interpret the Constitution (even the ones you hate)? Do you really need to have the teleprompter give the words of the perjury oath if you’ve given it a thousand times?

The answer to the last is YES. When you’re in front of a hundred people, it’s easy to screw up your lines. Trust me – it’s always good to have your script in front of you.

Lots of potential problems here – but what do you think? Am I misunderstanding what Rusty and Dallin are saying? Do you believe the Constitution is divinely inspired? Would you name your son Dallin? Let me know in the comments below!

Polite Fiction vs. Cynical View

27 Jun

Maybe I’m too cynical, but I’ve found recently that often I can’t take things at face value. I’m always thinking, “What’s the angle?” “What are they trying to push.” This applies to the news, to ads, but most recently, to holidays.

So my city recently celebrated Juneteenth—when the last slaves were informed they were free—which was June 19th, 1865. The City of Phoenix took the day off; Tempe had Juneteenth flags in the streets (alternating with the new Pride flags, for the month of June). I celebrated it by going to two bars, getting drunk, and having great conversations with vets. Now when discussing Juneteenth with my wife, more specifically its place in civil religion (yeah, these are the conversations I have with my lover—you know you want it), she gave a reason for its recognition that I interpreted as “polite.”

She was of the opinion that this, in addition to MLK Day, were two holidays dedicated to civil rights and it shows the shift in our national discourse and what we choose to celebrate. She put it in the lens of “civil religion” (which is often given as a pejorative), the religious-style way that we approach our national identity. We have sacred documents (Constitution, Declaration of Independence), hymns (America the Beautiful, National Anthem), liturgy (“I pledge allegiance to the flag…), and pilgrimage sites (White House, The Mall, Arlington National Cemetery).

But there’s a reason its pejorative; the reason for many of those “sacred” items in our civil religion were done for cynical reasons. The Constitution was a compromise between different political factions. The Pledge of Allegiance was added around WWI to ensure immigrants identified themselves as Americans; “under God” was added in the 1950’s to fight Communist “godless atheism.”

Which leads to holidays. Independence Day should have been June 2nd, when it was signed, but since it was only announced on the 4th, that’s the day that stuck. Columbus Day became a holiday to honor the Columbian Exposition in Chicago around 1892, which celebrates the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the New World. Well, that’s the polite answer. It was really to ensure the loyalty of hundreds of thousands of Italian immigrants and get their vote for McKinley.

Juneteenth might honor the end of slavery in America, but it only became popularized after the Tulsa riots on May 30-June 1, 1921 that destroyed Black Wall Street. (Not our finest hour. Also–came up while drinking in bars on Juneteenth.) We don’t like remembering a disaster, so we remember the positive. But at a time when racial politics are emphasized, it’s a way to ensure the loyalty of millions of African-Americans. Now—does that mean we shouldn’t celebrate it? By no means! We should remember ending slavery. We should remember Tulsa. We should remember Columbus AND the destruction of the native peoples as a result.

But the cynical side of me says to not pretend that this is proof of an evolution of the national consciousness. This is a political move to appeal to areas that have a large African-American population, or in the case of Tempe, people who want that evolution of the national consciousness. But I could be too cynical. Is it all right to do the right thing for the wrong reasons? Or to put a polite fiction over a gritty reality? Let me know in the comments below!

“Literal Interpretation” is still “Pick and Choose”

16 Jun

The pastor of the Stedfast Baptist Church got a lot of press recently by saying the government should execute all gay people. This is based on a literal interpretation of the Bible… but is it? The answer is yes AND no.

First off, by giving this pastor any press, you have a) not discouraged him and b) gained him followers. From their Facebook page, they look like they may have fifty families, tops, attending this Fort Worth, Texas church. No one knew who the hell (pun intended) this guy was before Twitter blew up.

Second, his interpretation of the Bible is based on the King James Version. “Version” = interpretation, in this case “literally” from ancient Hebrew and Greek. This pastor doesn’t expect his followers to read the original languages, but the interpretation that is closest (in his opinion) to God’s will to His people.

Okay, let’s just take that at face value. So in that case, he’s right – Leviticus 18:22 calls homosexuality an abdomination. But verse 6 says not to uncover the nakedness of your family; so no swimming pool? Or next chapter, 19:19, no clothes made of two different materials… Where do you find all wool shirts? Do you wear them in a humid Texas summer? And you better not have any tattoos.

Also, better say goodbye to eating pork or shellfish. Or putting cheese on ANYTHING. Oh, but wait, there’s a line in Acts 10:15 that says, “What God has made clean, let no man call unclean.” Okay, that gets you off the hook for eating kosher, but then you have to ask yourself… Did God make a mistake in the Old Testament? Why would He say to do one thing and then change his mind a thousand years later? Isn’t Christ the same “yesterday, today, and forever?”

A journalist by the name of AJ Jacobs captured this problem best in the book “The Year of Living Biblically.” For a year, he tried a strict interpretation of the Bible. He never cut his beard, wore an all wool robe (with fringes), never ate pork, and at one point, got to “stone” an infidel (with pebbles and with their permission).

As you can imagine, that’s really hard, and completely incompatible with modern American life. So if you choose NOT to live like a Hasidic Jew, you’re picking and choosing what to follow in the Bible. Now it’s perfectly fair to say this is the “correct” or “best” interpretation, but it is by no means “strict.”

But why should I make the argument when others have done it better? Martin Sheen? Take it away…

This Is Not For You

2 Jun

When you’re married to a religious studies professor, you come across some weird stuff. So when we watch this film made by evangelical Christians, I had to ask myself, “Am I their audience? Better yet, do they even KNOW their audience?”

The film is called Awakened, and its about the revival spirit that has flourished on Indian reservations; the growth of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the first nations. At least, that’s what they said in the description. This should be fifteen minutes, right? Interview some pastors, show some revivals, edit it some catchy music, done. Nope. This is ninety minutes long! What else did they cram in there?

It starts off with a description of Native history and how the way missionaries approached the tribes, crushing their culture in favor of WASP Christianity… that was interesting. With the civil rights movement, many natives rejected Christianity, because that faith rejected their culture. Missionaries realized their mistake The film shows clips of Billy Graham in 1975 addressing a conference of Indian pastors saying we need to match their culture with Christ.

Okay – this captured my interest. But then I started noticing something. The native Christians were not showing worship in their culture; the services were indistinguishable from any white protestant service I’ve attended. They sang two songs in… I’m guessing Navajo, but it was How Great Thou Art and Amazing Grace – 19th century Protestant hymns. There’s no adapting Christ to culture here! Who is this for?

It was also short on revivals… In fact they deliberately avoided the word. They preferred “awakening.” There were interviews with folks (mostly white) about the power of the Spirit moving, but little on specifics. Then they interview some Messianic Jews and their visions they’ve had.

Wait… what?! What happened to the Native Americans? Well, there was a play on the phrase, “gathering of the tribes” throughout the film, a deliberate author to tie American tribes with the tribes of Israel. So since Messianics are Christians who follow (their interpretation of) Jewish practice, it makes (some sort of) sense. Then we follow this Native missionary who works in Los Angeles preaching to… USC college students? That’s when I stopped watching – in my opinion, the filmmaker completely dropped the point of the film!

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I missed the point of the film. Awakened is not about Native Christians; it’s a piece about how there is a spiritual awakening in America – a sign of Christ’s return. They showed acculturated natives because that’s what the evangelical Christian audience could relate to. If you saw Native dances at a service (the Catholics got this), the real audience would have been confused. This film was not for me. It wasn’t even about Native Christianity. It was about the second coming of Christ… and everyone better look busy.

I do not recommend this film, but watch the trailer, and you get the idea. It’s heavy on (what I call) “the hard sell” and low on content. Great production value, good music, but it’s preaching to the converted. I just wish it had been more honest about that before I watched it.

Secular Sainthood

10 Jun

If the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, then our spiritual icons must appear in ad space. In an America where people are less spiritual, and more ignorant of their own history, something has to take its place–therefore we have secular saints.

This is nothing new–in fact, there’s a term for it–“civil religion.” In a young country such as ourselves (and 300 years is pretty young), America had to invent a whole mythology and founding fathers to lionize and exalt. Since the best example of a working republic was Rome’s, our national buildings emulate Roman design consciously. Without a state church, we had to take away most of the direct religious connections, and appealed to unifying concepts (such as the Ten Commandments).

The recent change in our civil religion has been who we choose to venerate. Since we learned that our founding fathers were just flawed white men whose beliefs do not match our modern sensibilities, there has been a push to eliminate the old gods in favor of the new. In this case, Valley Metro in Phoenix has pushed to have a local artist create these beautiful pictures of 19 historical women to honor Women’s History Month.

Okay, let me get off my soapbox briefly to say, “These pictures are really good.” We should celebrate the founding mothers as well as the fathers. It was a little harder to be a big splash as a woman two hundred years ago, so our examples are far more recent. Now I’m going to take my fairness hat back off and ask, “Don’t these pictures look a LOT like Orthodox Christian icons?”

There’s a flower around their head (cough, cough… halo), one of them is holding an paint wheel like a cross or a book, and they all stare down at you like they owe you something. Like saints, these women are to be venerated; their lives are examples of how we should behave. Rosa Parks, Sally Ride, Harriet Tubman… women who broke traditional standards and succeeded. We made sure to throw in as many ethnicities as possible, regardless of how much it makes sense. For example, Jumko Tabei, the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Seriously? Or take Mary Eliza Mahoney, the first African American to graduate from an American school of nursing. Who cares! You could have used Elizabeth Blackwell, first female American doctor, but we already hit our limit of pale skinned women.

What I wonder is how long these new secular saints will last before they are replaced. How long will Madam C. J. Walker last as “the first Black woman millionaire in America” before her belief in self-reliance and her relationship with the wealthy overwhelm her ethnic status? How long will Judy Garland’s role as a gay icon last when people stop watching The Wizard of Oz? The problem with creating new gods is that they don’t have a tradition to support them when the next generation comes along. But maybe that’s the point–new gods for a new generation, nothing stable, everything politically correct? Maybe I’m being hyper-critical about a bunch of urban art. Let me know in the comments below! Then if you want some more ephemeral art, check out one of my books. However, if $1.99 is too expensive to support the arts, go ahead and download one of my stories for free. You’ll be glad you did.

Not Today, Satan!

29 May

So I’m walking into work and I pass a guy with a t-shirt that loudly proclaimed, “Not Today Satan!” That got me thinking two things: 1) That sentence needs a comma and 2) isn’t blaming Satan for the evil in the world a bit of a cop out?

Satan as a concept seems almost sacrilegious. If I want to be pretentious, I’d say it’s Manichaean or dualist; it has a Zoroastrian flair to it. The idea of an equal and opposite power to God weakens the power of the Almighty. The Christian and Islamic traditions would say that Satan/Shaitain is far weaker. but why would God allow a force of evil to exist in the world?

Satan is named explicitly in the Gospels and the Letters of the New Testament, as well as the Quran, but when it’s mentioned in the Tanakh (Old Testament), Satan is “the snake” (Genesis 2) or “the adversary.” (Job 1) Job was the first written of the Biblical texts; the language is far more archaic than the Torah or certainly any of the Histories or Prophets. Anyway, in that book:

6 Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them. And the Lord said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.

And the Lord said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?

Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought 10 Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. 11 But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face.

12 And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord.

Job 1: 6-12 (KJV)

Satan is simply one of the angels (although the text uses “sons of God”); not only is he welcomed at the heavenly court, he’s listened to. He sounds a lot like God’s “no man” in his entourage. God needs someone to point out the flaws in the plan. But this sets up the purpose of devils in scripture. Devils never attack you directly, they whisper in your ear. They suggest. Jesus is tempted by Satan in the desert, suggests a whole bunch of things, and as a good Jewish boy, he can quote scriptural reasons back at him… never directly touches him. Heck, even God “hardens the heart of Pharaoh” (Exodus 8:19) but God didn’t force the man to make that decision, just suggested it.

Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) divides everything into the Sitra D’Kedushah (the side of holiness) or Sitra Achra (the side of impurity). I frequently hear the Sitra Achra defined as the “evil intention.” It’s easy to imagine your dark side as a “still small voice” whispering dark thoughts into your ear. But I think that’s too easy; the pure and the impure exist within all of us.

So the fault does not lie in Satan, but in ourselves; if it helps you to believe there is a devil on your shoulder, but it convinces you to do the right thing, is that so wrong? What do you think? Let me know in the comments below! Then check out one of my books. However, if $1.99 is too steep for your wallet, go ahead and download one of my stories for free. You’ll be glad you did.

Country Club Judaism

29 Apr

Yesterday, I was talking about what I call “transactional religion,” the pay-for-play deal that you make with your local priest so that you get your lifecycle event. If that’s important to you, then you’ll pay. Now let’s take it to the nth degree.

I mentioned that my wife’s home congregation wouldn’t let us have our wedding at the synagogue. At first blush, that sounds fine. I’m a member of a veteran’s organization that runs it’s own bar. If you’re not a member there, you can’t drink there. Perfectly understandable. However, you can rent out the meeting space, because they’re bringing in money.

In our case, our son should have been bar mitzvah’d last year, but a little disease came through… maybe you heard about it. Despite being members of our current congregation for six months, they refuse to let him have the ceremony unless our son goes through another year of Sunday school, do a project, and vow to be a member for the next three years. Just like everyone else.

Now in fairness, we understand this, because traditionally American Jews only show up for the High Holidays, bar mitzvahs, weddings, and funerals… the lifecycle events. So you want those people who come through to actually be willing to support the congregation and be good Jews. So there are tickets sold to attend the High Holidays, because people will actually buy them. They want to make sure the bar mitzvah has actually had the training before they get up in front of God and everyone.

But that’s not the case here. They didn’t take our attendance in consideration. They didn’t take the fact that he’s a year late in doing the ceremony due to COVID into play. They didn’t care that he’s been working with a cantor for TWICE the normal time. All they cared about was that “this is how we do things.” They didn’t trust us to attend after my son’s bar mitzvah, they wanted it in writing that we would. They didn’t think, “gee, they have a daughter who will need this same thing in three years.” Nope. Pay the money or leave us alone.

So… screw ’em. This is what is known (not just me) as Country Club Judaism–sign the membership fee and you get to play. We have never been rich; in our lives, we’ve hovered between paycheck to paycheck to comfortably middle class. We’ve gone down a little since I stopped travelling for consulting, but still not worrying how we’re going to pay the bills. We also live below our means. We can pay the money.

But at this point, it’s not the money–it’s that lack of trust. They don’t think enough of us to be flexible. They’ve been burned too many times to even give us consideration. Because all we are to them is faces on a Zoom meeting; we’re not real. And that’s the most damning thing of all. We’re not part of this congregation, and the truth is, unless we’re bringing in enough money, we never will.

That’s what hurts the most; they don’t want to know us. They want our numbers, they want our money, but they could care less what we want back from the congregation. And that’s an organization I don’t want to be part of. So we’ll find another spiritual home. I doubt we’ll find anywhere willing to let us perform the bar mitzvah, it’s less than three months now. But we’ve got plenty of time to prepare for Eliza’s bat mitzvah, but are we willing to go through their half-ass preparation? Go through the hoops for her somewhere else? I might… but I doubt my wife will.

We’ve been burned before, too, and unfortunately, we’re running out of options. Apart from simply doing the ceremony ourselves, I don’t think there’s anywhere we can go where we can get what we want. So we’ll probably attend somewhere… and then just never bother getting our daughter bat mitzvah’d in a shul. Or ever have a funeral or anything… just paying month-to-month to support things, but never voting, because this pay-for-play system is not what we believe. But what do you think? Are we too up our own butts? Are we absolutely right? Let me know in the comments below! Then, if you feel like this congregation is worth supporting, buy one of my books. However, if $1.99 is too expensive, go ahead and download one of my stories for free. We want you here, money or not… and if you read up to this point, I love you, reader. May we have many years together.

Transactional Religion

28 Apr

I believe in God. I’m also changing congregations for the second time in a year because my wife and I are not willing to pay the price their board has demanded. No negotiation, no understanding, just… this our policy. This is why believers stop going.

This is what we have decided to call “transactional religion.” I accept the fact that when you join a congregation, someone needs to pay for the building, someone needs to pay the priest, and all the little things that people don’t take on credit. That’s fine. However, that’s not what I’m talking about.

Congregations wants people to show up; after all, if two or three don’t appear in His name, why did I bother showing up? Services are free; you are donating your time and activity to better the congregation. (Now I’m using the generic term “congregation” to apply it to all American religions.) However, when you want something back from the congregation, they want you to pay.

Now most of the time, you can accept that transaction. You ask the priest to come out for a wedding or a funeral, they usually get a donation or an honorarium… which means money. You ask a group of Buddhist monks to come out and purify your house, you’re going to provide food, drink, and cigarettes. (The monks who came to our neighbor’s house smoked like chimneys.) You got to a temple, you leave a donation.

However, that’s an accepted transaction. It’s also based on the willingness and ability of the person to pay. If two poor people want to get married, but they can only offer $100 instead of $300 to the priest, the priest might show up anyway. But they won’t get married in a church, because they can’t afford the site fee. My wife and I wanted to get married in her “home” synagogue, the one she grew up in, before she left for Nebraska and India. So she hadn’t been members for a while. We were poor but we were willing to pay the site fee. But because we weren’t members, the board refused. So we got married in a park, the rabbi came to us, and we paid the honorarium.

That was 15 years ago. It’s not like there was a monster truck rally at the shul we were interrupting, or trying to bump off another wedding, or even interfering with a regular meeting. The shul was empty, they were open on a Thursday, but because we weren’t members… screw you. You don’t get to use our building.

I fear my kvetching is going to take longer than a single post, so I’ll finish this tomorrow, but have you run into this before? What do you think? Let me know in the comments below! Then since we’re talking transactions, the post is free, but the reason is not, so buy one of my books. 🙂 However, I want you to be a member of this congregation, so if $1.99 is too pricey, go ahead and download one of my stories for free.

We Are The Vandals

5 Apr

Where is the borderline between profound and pedantic? The answer: your mileage may vary. Some books hit you at the right time and change your life. A piece of music might bring one person to tears and leave another person dry. If you have to explain the joke, is it funny?

I keep thinking back to Type O Negative–I loved that band, bought most of their albums, and they had a very tongue-in-cheek approach to their heavy metal/goth music they produced. Anyway, on their third album cover (yes, kids, bands used to put out physical albums!), they wrote, “Functionless Art Is Simply Tolerated Vandalism. . .We Are The Vandals.” When someone asked the guitarist (Kenny Hickey) about that, he said,  “That’s the truth, that wasn’t a joke. Our art is completely functionless. There is no use for it except for listening pleasure or killing time. The rest of the album is a joke!”

A lot of literature is like that. I know the Tanakh (Old Testament) pretty well; I’ve read the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and I’ve picked at a variety of religious texts. If you’re a believer, the lessons are profound. If you’re not… it’s hard to find meaning. Take the Bhavagad-Gita; the seminal work for everyday Hindus, which teaches the lesson of the Gods to men. There’s a lot more holy books in that religion, but that’s the one that gets studied. My grade school knowledge is limited, so all I know is when Robert Oppenheimer quoted it when he saw the atomic bomb test, “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one… I have become death, destroyer of worlds.”

Wow. That’s pretty cool… but it’s out of context. It’s not what the god meant–in context, he was telling Arjuna, “You’re here to fight. It’s your dharma. You’ve become death at this moment, so do it.” Let’s take a random verse from the same text:

O son of Kuntī, the nonpermanent appearance of happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and disappearance of winter and summer seasons. They arise from sense perception, O scion of Bharata, and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed.

Bhavagad-Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 14

If you can get past the rather stilted translation, you might get out of it, “Don’t get too upset if you’re not happy–it comes and goes–don’t let it get in the way.” Which is an important lesson to learn and pretty valuable. But you might get lost in the verbiage, and since I’m not a Hindu, I don’t find it terribly profound.

One of the books that literally changed my life was After the Ecstasy, the Laundry by Jack Kornfield. He’s an American Buddhist teacher who interviewed fellow clerics from different faiths to ask the question, “What does a spiritual person do when they get burned out?” There are moments in one’s life where you feel close to the infinite–what I call a “spiritual high.” The problem with any high is that you crash from it. So what do you do when you beat yourself up because you don’t feel enlightened when your delicates have to go through the dryer?

This book hit me at a time when I was spiritually burned out–where I fell far short of the Glory of God. This made me realize that I wasn’t alone and I could proceed on in my spiritual journey. For other people, who weren’t in that situation, they might think, “Oh, that’s nice,” and move on to the next book. For me, that was gospel; for others, good advice.

Timing is everything. Maybe you’ll find a moment of perfect clarity in one of my books. Or if $1.99 is too much to pay for revelation, you might find it in one of my free stories. Or maybe you’ll just enjoy them as good stories, either way, let me know in the comments below! Or any other thought about profound literature… I won’t judge. 🙂

Religious Existentialism

28 Mar

I am not a fundamentalist of any stripe, but I believe in God. At various points in my life, I wanted to serve God in an official capacity, but my life changed. So how do you believe strongly in something without gripping rock-hard principles?

I was mentioning existentialism in an earlier post, but I found myself getting away from my point about conspiracy theories, and realized that it had to be its own post. I like existentialism but I don’t completely buy it, partly because it starts with the initial concept that God doesn’t exist. So I have breakdown the philosophy to its fundamental components. But instead of me boring you with that, let’s have Joss Whedon (my “icon of existentialism,” but what others call, “the patron saint of mediocrity”) explain it:

Jubal Early : Where’s your sister?
Dr. Simon Tam : I don’t know. Who do you work for?
Jubal Early : This is her room.
Dr. Simon Tam : Yes.
Jubal Early : It’s empty.
Dr. Simon Tam : I know.
Jubal Early : So is it still a room when it’s empty? Does the room, the thing, have purpose? Or do we – what’s the word?
Dr. Simon Tam : I really can’t help you.
Jubal Early : The plan’s to take your sister; get the reward, which is substantial – “imbue”, that’s the word.
Dr. Simon Tam : So you’re a bounty hunter.
Jubal Early : No, that ain’t it at all.
Dr. Simon Tam : Then what are you?
Jubal Early : I’m a bounty hunter.

Firefly, Objects in Space (2002)

I love that episode, especially the philosophical bounty hunter, and Joss will bore you to death with the commentary to that episode explaining it. But let’s hit the fundamental question–does life have purpose or do we imbue it with purpose? If you’re atheist, your answer is “we imbue it with purpose.” If you’re a theist, the answer is “God gives life purpose.” To quote the Westminster Catechism of Faith, “The chief end of man is to love God and enjoy him forever.” Considering that’s all I know about that seminal work of Protestantism, it made quite an impression on a 12-year-old in confirmation class. The focus was always on the word “enjoy.” It’s not an error in translation, it’s the key. God wants us to be happy.

In existentialism, the point… is there is no point to life, and it’s up to us to make it have meaning for ourselves. Or to quote another great TV show:

Kryten : Monsieur Jean-Paul Sartre, sir.
Rimmer : Who?
Kryten : He’s a philosopher, sir. He’s an existentialist.
Rimmer : Well, Sartre! We don’t like existentialists around here. And we certainly don’t like French philosophers poncing around in their black polo-necks filling everyone’s heads with their theories about the bleakness of existence and the absurdity of the cosmos! Clear?

Red Dwarf, Meltdown (1991)

So here’s where I keep things simple. If God exists and he wants us to enjoy Him, then he intercedes in our lives, because we often find ourselves down the wrong path. That’s a pretty big jump, but my own experience is one of divine intercession. Now Seth McFarlane would say, “We’re just coincidence whores,” seeing intercession in everything. He speaks as someone who missed one of the flights that crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11. You could say that God destined him for greatness, but he interpreted that as, “Shit happens, get over it.”

Or to put it nicer, “Life is chaos, be kind.” That was Michelle McNamara’s mantra; she was the writer of true crime novels and married to comedian Patton Oswald. “Was” as in one night she went to bed and never woke up again.

The problem with believing in intercession is that you have to ask, “Why does God intercede in my life, but not to save my mom?” This was a hard one for a while, and since I don’t believe in predestination anymore (God having a plan for our lives), then I’m left with the answer Van Halen put on their video, Right Now: “Right now, God is killing moms and dogs… because he has to.”

God created a universe governed by certain rules. My mom had a curable disease that she chose not to be cured by; so she died. Could God have cured her? Of course, but he didn’t… because that would violate free will. In order to give the choice to love Him, He has to give us the choice to do the opposite. This is why I believe that the Jewish tradition is the closest to how I believe God exists. It’s a contractual arrangement, not a contract between equals, but not a master-servant relationship either. It’s the deal is very simple: “You will be my people and I will be your God.” If you break the terms of the agreement, then there will be consequences. In my belief, God is not a vengeful father, he’s a disappointed landlord.

A subtle difference, but an important one. God wants us to be happy; the commandments are there to help us be happy, not as arbitrary rules (although no one can explain the red heifer). When we break those rules, we feel guilty (some call it “sin”), so we need to atone for our sin, but since we can’t sacrifice a goat anymore, we need to do acts of lovingkindness. And that’s the purpose of life: Love God, Love Your Fellow Man, Be Happy. Sounds easy, but in the end, the hardest thing to do.

Am I too up my own butt for this one? What massive philosophical step did I jump over? Let me know in the comments below! After that, why not pick up one of my books! It’s full of characters who have difficulty relating to the absurdity of the cosmos. Or if you’re not ready to read between the lines of a fun story, try a shorter story for free. You’ll be glad you did.

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