This is a reflection on the theological debate about the nature of God: does God command things that are good (only), or is a thing good because God commands it? Or in other words, what is God like and what do we want from him?
The other day I was having a discussion with two friends who are evangelical Christians and we discussed the way I approach faith: beginning with the nature of God in analyzing Christianity rather than by opening Scripture, especially the Old Testament. After about half an hour they wanted to end the conversation because my emphasis on God being pure good, with no unintended side effects, etc., which I often write about in this column, made them uncomfortable. I agreed to end the conversation but I just asked them to continue considering our concepts, agreements and disagreements about what God is like.
This is why critics of religion complain that Man has "made God in his image." In a sense this is true! People who are angry will decide that God must be angry, and they will become fearful that God is angry with them. People who are secure and contented will tend to be hopeful and optimistic in their faith and believe that God loves them. This cannot be avoided; it is difficult to separate our emotions from daily life, let alone our religious concepts.
What happens after that is the conflict that begins when we look into the Bible seriously. This does not happen just sometimes; it always happens when we have just thrashed out a long and difficult thought process about God being perfectly good, just and loving. It is why I refer to Biblical theology as being an example of reverse-engineering the many things that we read in the Old Testament that simply contradict the idea that God is good, just and loving.
You can see this with crystal clarity in the writings of Mark Twain. His book Letters from the Earth is a standard discovery in the first year of college, and if a student reads it with the attention it deserves it can rock their faith to its very foundations. It did not rock my religion but that was only because I was coming from reading C. S. Lewis and other theologians before I went to the Bible when I took a course called The Bible As Literature.
Being raised in the Episcopal Church, I felt free to admit that some of the things that we read every Sunday can be troubling if we must believe them through the force of our church's insistence. How could I help but notice that had I been alive in the epoch of Noah, I wouldn't have been on the Ark? What had I done at the age of seventeen to deserve that?
This is when bullies try to push their emotions as well as their beliefs on us. If all else fails, they start talking about eternal torment, lakes of fire and so forth, hoping that if they can't convince your intellect they can corral your fears behind their fences. You'd better believe what they are preaching or else! You can read the angry defiance of Twain's outrage in many of his works, from his pointed portrait of racism in Huckleberry Finn to his scathing denouncement of hypocrisy in Letters from the Earth.
What puzzled my friends at the time was that I didn't disagree with Twain. His portraits are accurate, but they were not portraits of me or, more importantly, of my father and mother (at the age I was then). The racism, rage and hypocrisy exist, but they do not comprise the entire body of the Church; they are aberrations. In point of fact, they are un-Christian and you can see the problem if you read the Letters of St. Paul.
Right now, if you want to call yourself evangelical, you must endure what my friends had to endure from me: my denouncement of the racism and political corruption that the evangelical Church is rife with. I will grant them cheerfully that their particular congregation does not go as far as the Family Research Council--but then who does?--and they get tarred with the same brush because they do, in reality, report to a church every Sunday where they are likely to hear denouncement of the LGBT community if nothing else.
Evangelicals in Tucson, as in other communities, are notorious for breaking up families over what gay members they may have. Their preachers pressure the gay sons, cousins, aunts and so on to "pray away the gay," and if not, they pressure the rest of the family to abandon them. Two of my friends are suffering through this.
The female gay friend that I have has been torturing herself for years, trying to pray away her gay or in some way appease her family. She even grew out her hair to look more feminine, left the congregation I belong to (where she is loved and valued) and abased herself before this other preacher for years.
My male gay friend also went through the same thing. It consumed his health, and he now has several stress-related ailments. But some years ago he abandoned the church and the family members who would not accept him as he is, and he has achieved peace with his present life. And even that is something I could raise an objection to: isn't he entitled to all the joy and happiness that we are all looking for?
So it is of the utmost importance that we do come to a set of beliefs about God before we try to figure out religion. For instance, when someone speculates about whether God "took" a person who recently died, it helps if you simply rule it out as unworthy of God's loving nature. A person dies because s/he was sick or hurt, not because God decided to take life. This situation has caused many people to lose their faith, and we ought to be paying attention to it. In fact, you simply cannot call yourself pro-life sincerely, and then worship a God who takes the lives of people--not even the lives of bad people, but of people who supposedly love and worship him?
When we posit that God is perfectly loving, just and compassionate, we have to realize that there is quite a gap between his nature and ours. But we can also see that while we are not perfect, we need not fear a God who is "up there," dealing out pain and tragedy all our lives until we die and he might decide to send us to eternal suffering.
We are not perfect, but God is, and in addition to being unfailingly good, he is also aware that we try, with varying degrees of success, to be good ourselves. If we have that understanding of God, we can trust that he has that understanding of us.
We can point out to the people who are so sure that "God is in charge," that apparently God saw fit to permit the end of the lives of Jesus and Abraham Lincoln well before their time, but he did not end the life of Adolf Hitler before he could bring misery to millions of people. It is a no-brainer but it is also kind of an insult to think that people could not see the nonsense there. However, point it out to a "missionary" and they will not return to preach to you another day. It has been a long time since Mormon "missionaries" came over to my house--the last time was when I advised them to read Chapter 9 of the Third Book of Nephi before they came back again, and they never did come back.
Those two phrases cause a lot of trouble: besides God being "in charge," we also hear that "everything happens for a reason." Well, going back to the nature of God, I will be happy to admit that when a person smokes for thirty years and then gets lung cancer, the connection is pretty obvious. But from my point of view about God, the cancer patient was not afflicted with cancer from God, nor did the cancer happen for any other reason than the physical.
I'm happy for the person whose strong constitution fortifies them against cancer, but cause and effect is actually pretty simple once you dispense with the idea that God has a part in it. It is not--again--that God is "up there," raining down troubles upon our hapless lives. God, to a Christian, is "down here," giving us support and unconditional love.
I say to the LGBT community: think of yourselves as suffering as Jesus suffered, in that he was a devout Jew and a respectable member of his community. But he ended up being persecuted and killed because his level of consciousness about God was higher and more inclusive than those around him. Those who insist on persecuting the LGBT community--especially right now in Arizona--are simply the modern Pharisees who say there is only one way on a number of topics. But they are wrong.
In fact, it was only after I went through this process of figuring out what, in my mind, is "of God" and what is not, that I could rebuild my respect for the Scriptures that incurred the wrath of Mark Twain and many other critics of Christianity. When I realized that some parts of the Bible are simply mistaken, I could forgive that. But I cannot forgive those who keep on interpreting Scripture and picking their proof quotes to justify their hatred of our African American president or to be able to exercise their hate and homophobia. I do not forgive them for picking out proof quotes to justify their hatred and homophobia; furthermore, I no longer concern myself because I have come to realize that the Bible was not put together by perfect individuals, but by imperfect human beings who worship a perfect God.