On Faith I: Faith & Reason

TNB_OpeningIn July 1940, an engineering marvel was completed: the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge. One of the longest suspension bridges in the world at the time, it exemplified the light, graceful architectural trend of suspension bridges built in this era. Called the crowning achievement of his career, designer Leon Moisseiff — the architect of the Golden Gate and Bay bridges in San Francisco — later declared “our plans seemed 100% perfect.”
 
 
Yet 4 months later, on November 7 1940, the Narrows Bridge catastrophically collapsed in a windstorm into Puget Sound.

1940: Gertie CollapsesLeon Moisseiff had unshakable faith in the reliability of his newly-completed masterpiece. He would have had no qualms whatsoever trusting its dependability in any weather conditions. Yet had he stood upon his own creation on November 7th, 1940, his faith would have been fatal. The object of his faith was unreliable, and the strength of his faith irrelevant.
 
 

Faith has become the diametric of reason … practiced only by deluded fools who reject the graceful catenary and steel-plate certainty of scientific rationalism.

Faith is an idea frequently voiced, but little understood. It is commonly mentioned in the pejorative sense in today’s secular society, where it has become a proxy for belief in the unbelievable, the unprovable, the superstitious and the mythical. Faith has become the diametric of reason — unreasonably so, as we shall see — practiced only by deluded fools who reject the graceful catenary and steel-plate certainty of scientific rationalism.

Yet faith–not love–makes the world go ’round. You exercise faith when you place the key in the ignition and start your car. You have faith when you flip a switch, expecting light to rush forth from a fixture, or music from stereo speakers. You have faith that your coat will keep you warm and dry; your plane will stay aloft; your surgeon will bring you through a heart bypass. The atheist has utter faith in his reason, that belief in God is beyond logic and therefore must be rejected. Such faith is nothing more than trust: a confidence that the object is reliable, the tool is trustworthy, its behavior predictable, its nature dependable. In the physical realm, such trust may be based in part on knowledge — one can study the flow of electrons and principles of resistance which make a light bulb glow — but such erudition is entirely optional, and rarely grasped by those who rely on its behavior. The object of faith may be entirely reliable yet utterly beyond our comprehension — or, as Leon Moisseiff discovered to his great dismay, deeply understood yet profoundly unreliable.
 
Continue reading “On Faith I: Faith & Reason”

Grace at Starbucks

This essay was originally posted in 2004.
 

Starbucks logoIt was late evening. I was headed for a meeting, at the end of a too-long day, and stopped into Starbucks for a fix. The store was empty except for a single barista. I ordered my coffee, and was stunned when told: “Your drink has been paid for by someone else.” I looked around: no “someone else” here.

The coffee was free, but better yet: I had received a free life lesson on grace.

I was raised with the conviction that one should expect nothing in life for free, and that hard work will ultimately be rewarded. Perhaps as a result, I have always been uncomfortable with complements or gifts received in unexpected contexts. Such awkwardness with gifts or complements seems common in others as well, a discomfort I suspect comes from a deep-seated sense of unworthiness or shame. There is a reflex need to reciprocate, to depreciate oneself, or even to decline the gift itself. I suspect I’m hardly alone with this awkwardness.

But here, at Starbucks, I was left without the opportunity to justify, minimize, rationalize, or refuse the offered grace. The perpetrator was long gone. I was busted.

As a Christian of many years, with hours of Bible study, books and sermons under my belt, I have long believed that I possessed a good intellectual grasp of grace. Grace was unmerited favor, best exemplified by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. And of course, I understood that I was saved by grace and not by my own merit. Yet there is something deep within, at the level of instinct, which resists this notion with great ferocity. I believe I can bridge the gap between myself and God because I have minimized with wild abandon the vastness of this chasm. God saved me, and I pay Him back by living as moral and upright a life as possible. It’s only fair, you know, gratitude and all. It’s also utterly wrong.

A stranger left a few dollars at a Starbucks for someone he or she would never know nor meet, who could not thank them. There would be no reciprocal payback, no Thank Yous, no praise for their generosity or acknowledgment of their kindness of spirit. Pure giving, with only the joy at anticipating that some unknown person would be blessed.

God’s grace is given with His full knowledge of the unworthiness of its object. It is pure love: not intended to get something in return, but rather to change the very nature of the object of grace. The thief on the cross had nothing to give back to God, but his life was transformed moments before his death–and we are the recipients of the grace given to him. I do not serve God to pay Him back for His grace; I serve Him because His grace changes my very nature, into one who in some small measure is an instrument whereby He can pass His grace on to others.

Healing Faith

chains
A reader named Katherine recently e-mailed me. She had lost her husband, a man some years older than she, to multiple myeloma and Alzheimer’s disease. She is a Christian, and is struggling to make sense of his death, and the difficult questions of why God allows suffering. She writes, after giving me some details of his life, death, and fine character, and asks:

Why does God allow such terrible illnesses to such a kind person? I know there is really no answer as I know all about Job. The thing I am really afraid is that I prayed for his healing, and it did not happen. When I became a Christian back in the 80’s, the health and prosperity gospel was big at the time, and I guess it really influenced me more than I care to admit as I now know it is false. Even though I know it is false, I have become obsessed that God did not answer my prayer because of not being able to get rid of all the sin in my life (as if this were possible to do). One of the teachings of that movement was that if your prayer for healing went unanswered it was either because of lack of faith or sin in your life. I kept thinking that I don’t always put God first in my life, and that I spent more time reading secular magazines than reading my Bible and listening to more secular music than Christian music. These were my “main” sins, at least in my mind and thinking. Can you shed some light on this for me? I would be very appreciative.

The problem of suffering and evil is an ageless one. It poses a particular challenge for Judaism and Christianity, because of the seemingly insoluble tension between a world filled with suffering and evil, and the belief in a God who is good and all-powerful. Solutions to this dilemma, both adequate and inadequate, abound. It is the desperate hope of the atheist that this logical incompatibility proves beyond question the nonexistence of God. Others, less willing to ditch a Divine order, have concluded that God is good, but impotent; or that God is detached and uncaring, or capricious, or moody, or sadistic — and therefore not good.

It must be said plainly that answers to this paradox are neither simple nor entirely satisfactory. The dilemma as it stands may be solved in a global and satisfactory way — as has been done by both Judaism and Christianity — but invariably the lofty principles seem to break down at the moment when a solution is most needed: in the time of crisis when we ourselves experienced the depths, hopelessness, and irrationality of suffering in our own lives. CS Lewis, whose tightly reasoned treatise The Problem of Pain provides an extraordinarily deep and thorough discussion of this dilemna–later in life nearly repudiates his faith and sound theology after the death of his wife, a process painfully detailed in his diaries, A Grief Observed. It is indeed unsettling to watch Lewis discard all of his carefully reasoned and theological understandings of pain and suffering in the brutal crucible of unbearable pain and loss. Nonetheless, he ultimately comes to terms with the paradox, and undergoes an embracing of this profound dilemma far deeper than the intellectual by means of his own trial of fire.

At the heart of this difficult issue lies the human heart. God undertook a vast and dangerous experiment when creating man: He wanted, not merely another animal — of which there were countless — but an animal capable of something He alone understood: love. He gave this exalted animal vast intellect — but this was not sufficient to engender love. He gave His creation powerful emotions, the capacity for both creation and destruction, which He alone had possessed — but this also was not sufficient. For love — the utter, uninhibited emptying of self for another — required that most dangerous license of all: free will. This being thus created, designed with the capacity to love, must of necessity be utterly free to choose — for choice is the very heart, the very essence of love.

It was, by all measures, an experiment gone wildly awry. Having given this creature the extraordinary capabilities required to love fully — intellect, emotion, passion, empathy, the ability to feel intense pleasure and pain both physically and spiritually — he set this creature free to love, first of all Him, and then others of its kind. And the first choice of this pinnacle of creation was the decision to turn away: to replace the intended objects of love with the sterile altar of self. Thus was unleashed the monstrous liability of a truly free creature: the ability to hate, to cause pain, to kill, to destroy.

If we are to be honest, much of the pain and suffering which comprise the evil of the world is due to nothing more than this: that man, having been given the ability to choose, chooses wrongly, and uses the gifts and abilities given for the purpose of love to instead elevate himself at the expense of others, often in ways stunningly malicious and utterly wicked. Look around you, at the world both near and far: pride, selfishness, greed, lust, rage, jealousy — all these things manifest themselves in our lives and those of others, causing great pain and endless suffering. The child abused; the wife abandoned; the drive-by shooting; the greedy CEO who bankrupts the company and rapes the stockholders; the serial killer and the rapist; genocide; wars of conquest; torture; senseless massacres: these are the actions of men and women putting self above others — and each of us does it, to a greater or lesser degree, though we minimize our own roles to justify our own actions. We all wish for a world where God would eliminate evil — but all assume that we ourselves would be the only ones left standing when His judgment is delivered. A world in which God eliminated evil would by necessity be emptied of all mankind.

Yet there also exists those evils which have been called, in days past, somewhat ironically, “acts of God” — those circumstances or events which cause pain and suffering, not directly engendered by human evil. Thus the child is born with a severe birth defect; hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes cause death and destruction; chronic and devastating diseases fall upon those who seemingly deserve a far better fate. It is with this, this seemingly capricious evil, with which we struggle most earnestly, straining to understand, yet to no avail. Judaism and Christianity both imply that some such evil may be consequential, the result of punishment or predictable consequences for the malfeasance of man. A more robust theology is less accusatory and thereby more coarsely granular — maintaining that such evil has entered the world because of the fall of man. Under such design our divine divorce has corrupted not only behavior, but our very natures, and all of creation. Yet such theology is of little comfort to those who are the objects of such seemingly random evil; we demand to know of God, “Why?” — and in particular, “Why me?” Yet there is no answer forthcoming, and we are left assuming a God either powerless to stop such evil or unwilling to do so.

Yet the problem of a good God, an omnipotent God, and an evil world of His creation is not entirely insoluble. Much lies in our projection of human frailty onto the nature of the Divine, and the impreciseness of our definitions of good and omnipotent. When we say God is good, we tend to mean that God is “nice” — that he would never do anything to cause us pain or suffering. Yet even in our limited experience, we must acknowledge that pain and suffering, while not inherently good, may be a means to goodness. We choose to have surgery or chemotherapy, though painful and debilitating, that our cancer may be cured. The halls of Alcoholics Anonymous are filled with men and women who, having faced both personal and relational destruction, have used their former liabilities as a gateway to a new, more fulfilling life — one which could not have taken place apart from their harrowing journey through alcoholism. To a misbehaving child, the discipline of a loving father is not perceived as good, but such correction is essential for the development of personal integrity, social integration, and responsibility. Our inability to discern the potential for good in pain and suffering does not by necessity deny its presence; there are many who, when asked, will point to painful, difficult, and unbearable times in life which have brought about profound, often unexpected good in their lives, unforeseeable in the midst of their dark days. There surely is much suffering which defies our capacity to understand, even through we strive with every fiber of our being to find the goodness therein. But the fact that such inexplicable suffering exists, and that answers are often lacking, does not preclude the possibility that God is good, or that such suffering may ultimately lead to something greater and more noble than the pain endured.

In our egocentricity we often neglect to look for the benefit in our suffering which comes not to us, but rather to others. Caring for someone suffering unbearably provides an opportunity to the caretaker to experience selfless love, compassion, tenderness, patience and endurance — character traits sadly lacking in our selfish world, which routinely turns its back on suffering to pursue an untroubled life of self-fulfillment and self-gratification. It is not inherently evil to be called to give beyond our means and ability — as caring for someone suffering always demands — for in the exhaustion and inadequacy thus revealed, we may discover unknown inner strengths, and come to a richer, and more fulfilling dependence on God. We are, as CS Lewis so accurately described, “not merely imperfect creatures that need improvement: we are rebels that need lay down their arms” — and finding how shallow are our reserves of love, compassion, and strength, we may through this brokenness seek to acquire them, humbly, from their Source.

But surely an omnipotent God has the power to stop suffering — is He not either impotent or evil when failing to use such power to remove our suffering? The omnipotence of God, like His goodness, is but dimly perceived. For the power of God is in perfect harmony with the purpose of God, and is thus used to advance these purposes for the greater good. Thus, the good deed of creating man with free will — and thereby capable of love — by its very nature restrains the omnipotence of God to violate that free will. The evil of the world exists in large part, if not wholly, because this free will has been abused. Yet the abuse of free will must be permitted, that the proper use of free will — the laying down of arms, the surrender to the sovereignty of a wholly good God — may take place, freely and unfettered as required by love. God must tolerate the existence of suffering and evil, that all may have the freedom to choose the good — though many will refuse to do so. Yet he does not merely tolerate the presence of suffering, but provides for its very redemption: that suffering, though itself evil, may ultimately produce good. Thus pain, suffering, death, and evil need not triumph: they may provide the means that some may turn toward the good, or bring forth further good for themselves or others. This is redemption: to buy back that which is destructive, worthless, of no value, evil, and make it worthwhile, valuable, even priceless.

Christianity, throughout its history, has struggled with and largely resolved the problem of pain, within the confines of the mystery of God. Yet Christianity in its many doctrinal eddies has sometimes chosen the wrong path and the wrong answers to this challenge. Such errors generally fall into two broad categories: the concept of suffering as punishment or retribution from God, and the manipulation of God for man’s gratification. The first of these runs counter to the core doctrine of the cross: that God has chosen to provide in Christ a sacrificial lamb — that Christ, through his suffering, may bear the justice of God, so that we may see the mercy of God. Our suffering is not a punishment for sin, as such punishment negates the purpose of the cross. Correction, it may be; discipline, it often is; opportunity, it always is; punishment, it never is.

The countering position — that of God as divine opiate, ever present to kill our pain — is a variant of the faith which has become perniciously widespread, feeding on a culture of ease and self-gratification which creates God in its own image. Thus God becomes a font of wealth, of health, of prosperity, of a trouble-free materialistic lifestyle, a divine vending machine whose coinage is faith. Faith, however, in such a worldview is no longer a profound trust in a God who is beyond understanding and infinitely wise, but becomes instead a means of buying from God all which we demand. Hence, we may be wealthy, if we only have enough faith; we may be healed, if our faith is sufficient; we will not suffer if we will but strengthen and enlarge our faith. Our faith must be prefect, lest our pleas go unheard. The strength of faith matters more than its verity; we charge the gates of heaven with the bludgeon of self-will.

The perniciousness and destructiveness of this perversion of historical Christian faith lies in removing from the hands of God decisions of life and death, health and illness, wholeness and suffering, while burdening us with the hopeless demand that we steel our faith to impossible heights to coerce and manipulate the will of God. That such efforts are typically fruitless seems self-evident: God most surely is capable of healing — and does indeed do so at times — but most surely does so in accordance with his divine wisdom and will. Should His wisdom dictate that suffering, poverty, brokenness, even death and despair would better serve the purposes of drawing men to Himself, what measure of human obstinacy and recalcitrance will change this will? When such “faith” proves futile, it destroys trust in God, and not infrequently leads to utter loss of belief, a bitter agnosticism born in false expectations and misplaced hope. Hence, we demand of God that which we alone deem to be good, then blame Him when He pursues a greater good beyond our understanding. This is the struggle to which Kathleen is alluding, as she questions the goodness of God in failing to heal her husband, blaming her own “sins” for his untimely demise. To us, such a healing seems only good — in so far as it mitigates our pain and loss, as well as that of those we love — but like the surgeon’s knife, sometimes such pain must not be withheld that evil may be conquered by the good. Were he healed, and restored to full health, would he not then face death on yet another day? Our lives have both purpose and a proper time: we live for that purpose, and we die when that purpose is fulfilled. That those who are left behind cannot grasp that purpose — and appropriately suffer profound pain and loss at this separation — does not negate that purpose nor impede its culmination.

We live in a time when our expectations of health, of prosperity, of a pain-free life are increasingly met in the physical realm, while we progressively become sickly, impoverished, and empty in the realm of the spirit. Despite our longer lives, we live in dread of death; despite our greater health, we obsess about our ills; despite our comfortable lives, we ache from an aimlessness and purposelessness which eats at our souls and deadens our spirits. Though we have at our command the means to kill our pain–to a degree never before seen in the history of the world–yet we have bargained away our peace in pursuit of our pleasure. The problem of pain has never been an easy one; in our day, it has not been solved, but rather worsened, by our delusions of perpetual comfort and expectations of a trouble-free life. Until we come to terms with suffering, we will not have comfort; until we embrace our pain, we will never have peace.

Collision of Worlds

cosmosAs wrecks go, it was not all that spectacular: some broken glass on the roadway, a few police cars, their rooftop strobes painting the night walls of nearby buildings with surreal dancing figures of light, red and blue. The SUV sat on a flatbed, with little apparent damage; the less fortunate compact, compacted on the passenger side. No apparent injuries, no ambulance, no stretchers.

The intersection–a T-bone emptying a side street into an urban arterial, controlled by a stoplight–was one I traveled often, almost daily. It was the insider’s way home–the city street longcut which circumvents the crush of rush-hour traffic, bypassing the freeway which costs time even on the best of days. Stopped at the light, I rubbernecked the scene, half-distracted by the mindless verbal patter of talk radio or some burned .mp3 I had heard too many times before. The mind wanders in such places, darting from thought to image, with no strong focus or overarching life crisis to rivet its attention. So the thought was odd, atypical, crisp in its clarity:

Sometimes other accidents happen at accident scenes.

The light turned green–my usual clue to pin the pedal and shorten my day by milliseconds while squandering a few extra ounces of too-costly petrol. But I paused: atypical. Was it the thought? Some other distraction? The fatigue of a day too long, the distracted weariness of a profession which sometimes bleeds your lifeblood like red pools on pavement? Who knows–how do you ever know?

My foot off the brake, not yet on the pedal, my car eased lightly into the now-allowed right-of-way. Retinal rods sensed motion without detail on the right–a car stopping at its just-red signal–or so it seemed at first.

He blew through the intersection–40, 45 my best guess–passing within inches of my front bumper. Never slowed, never braked, never aware that my car even existed. No surge of red from the tail lights, as they quickly faded down the dark arterial, undiminished and unaware.

The obligatory expletives rolled off my tongue, with far less fury than fear–it’s incongruous the bodily functions we sometimes call “holy.” The adrenaline leaves you shaken, and shaking, as the reality of what if sinks in.

Sometimes other accidents happen at accident scenes.

What is the nature of such intuition–a random thought presaging some disaster, a warning arising from–where? The depths of subconscious? Some long-forgotten experience, or story overheard? Perhaps a higher function of the brain, poorly developed and unrecognized, or some cosmic power, called “E.S.P.” or “paranormal” or “premonition” by those nearer to being charlatans than sages.

It may of course be any of these things, or several, or none: a random thought on a random corner, on a random night, near a random driver motoring recklessly. My sense, however–my conviction, even–is that it was something rather more–a collision, if you will, of two universes.

Such thoughts seem out of place–quaint even–in a technologically sophisticated culture where all that is known is that which is measured, where wisdom is weighed and parsed and packaged, and knowledge grows vaster about things ever more trivial. This vastness of knowledge has left us smaller people, living in a tightly constricted world, where joy and wonder have become the fodder of fools, displaced by cold cynicism and soulless skepticism. Ours is the triumph of gnosticism, the age of salvation through knowledge, fact trumping truth and science slaying the spirit. For in our great knowledge we have lost sight of that which is far vaster still, a universe unseen yet still experienced by many, a cosmos which impacts our lives moment by moment in ways both tiny and tectonic.

Ever since man looked upward at an incomprehensible sky, he has perceived the need for transcendence, to provide not only knowledge of the wonders beheld, but their meaning–to integrate that which is far larger, far deeper than himself into some sort of meaningful whole. Thus the history of man is the history of religion–a history with endless variations simple or sophisticated, from cave glyphs to gothic cathedrals, all pointing to something beyond man himself, whose very nature demands an explanation his nature alone cannot provide.

The fusion of these two worlds–material and spiritual–has had profound effects on human history in ways both great and small: from the lofty musical masterpieces of Bach and Handel, to the soaring architecture of the great cathedrals, to the preservation of ancient literature and culture by the monasteries, to the very roots of Western civilization, with its elevation of the individual and ideas of freedom and human rights, derived from Judeo-Christian insights on the nature of man and his relationship to God. And beyond these large and tangible mileposts lie countless lives transformed through the touch of spirit on hardened hearts, rippling through ages and cultures in ways almost imperceptible yet profound.

Yet Western civilization, so richly endowed with the gifts and benefits of its infusion of spiritual life and principles, has in an ironic twist taken one of these very gifts–the value of reason and logic and curiosity about the workings of a divinely-ordered creation, which gave rise to science–and used it as a wedge between the material and the spiritual. Western culture has bankrupted the very treasure from which its greatness arose, leaving an increasingly fragile shell of process without principles, institutions without inspiration, governance without grace. Steeped in knowledge yet long in shortcomings, our culture increasingly dismisses the spiritual and transcendent as but mere ignorance or malign superstition, and thus strangles its own lifeblood in its frantic rush to solve problems of the soul with the prescriptions of science and sociology. Our sickness is deep, and pervasive, and ultimately deadly–and made even more dangerous by our peculiar denial that there exists any sickness at all. Such malady takes many forms: from evangelistic secularism, seeking to purge all thought or mention of religion from our collective consciousness; to the intellectual miasma of postmodernism, where the only absolute truth is the denial of absolute truth; to the grand charade, where lust for power or corrupt materialism masquerade in the mantle of religious devotion or a gospel of social justice–which is neither just nor good for society; to the spirituality of the self, which seeks to find God within having denied Him without, and ends up worshiping only ego, in all its hideous manifestations.

There are, it is said, many roads to God–a cozy notion for the intellectually lazy and spiritually slothful, a passing nod to a past glory still spoken of but no longer believed. It is a bromide fast dissolving in a world where religious zealots praise Allah while slaughtering women and children; where men sing of Jesus while drinking poison Kool-Aid; where televised con-men fleece the faithful while preaching love and generosity; where men of the cloth speak of killing the elderly and suctioning the young with soothing words of “mercy” and “freedom” and “choice.” We are tossed like ships in a storm because we have lost both rudder and mast: the principles which have steered us, and the power which gives us purpose and direction, have been swept away in the rolling swells of material prosperity and the saturating rains of empty information and worthless knowledge.

It is time to do the hard work, the painful and unsettling job of foregoing easy assumptions and comfortable conclusions, to shine the harsh light of honesty and self-examination on our sated and sleepy souls. The easy road only leads downward, and we have followed it far too long. If all roads lead to God, then no road gets you there: you will spend an eternity seeking that which you do not wish to find.

I am a Christian; this is the road I have discovered, which has led me to God, which has allowed me to glimpse that universe which I understand little and conform to less. I make no apologies for my convictions, for I have found, by grace, a solid path which, while mysterious and tortuous and unpredictable, has proven real, and trustworthy, and tangible ways which only the intangible can be. As G.K. Chesterton said of his own journey into faith, the case for Christianity is rational–but it is not simple; it is an accumulation of countless facts all pointing in one direction. In the coming months, I hope to share something of my own journey into and through this faith. I do so, of course, in the hope that you too may also discover–or rediscover–its depth, and power, and integrity. But short of even this, may we begin to examine truth, and restore the principles, which alone may shine light on our ever-darkening age.

The Conversation

A recent post about surgical complications and their impact raised some interesting–and unexpected–discussion points. One of these which seemed to get a lot of attention–pro and con–was the topic of prayer. Some opined on their own experience with prayer, or proposed answers to the dilemma posed by unanswered prayer, or unexpected outcomes. Others dismissed prayer altogether as wishful thinking, illusion, or an example of an unfalsifiable belief.

Still others–while perhaps a bit skeptical–were more curious about my motives and rationale for pursuing prayer. One commenter, Dr. Rangle of the excellent Rangle, MD blog, phrased the following question:

I am curious. Why do you pray before each surgery? The obvious answer would be something along the lines of asking God to guide your hands and for her to give you the skill and wisdom to cure this patient and avoid badness etc. etc. etc. But you yourself admit that complications are inevitable no matter how skilled the surgeon. Why then pray for a skill that you already have and for a no serious complication rate that you know is impossible? … Do you pray for the strength and wisdom to admit your mistake(s) and to offer an apology and to ask for forgiveness? To ask for and to grant forgiveness is the most Christian of attributes. This is what I would pray for … if I prayed.

One of the things I enjoy most about blogging is the way a comment, or a post on another blog, can trigger a whole new area of thought and investigation. And since I’m a bit ADD in some ways, I find it interesting the manner in which this writing process seems almost self-perpetuating: just when I think I’ve had my last novel thought–my last creative or intuitive moment–something comes along to jog the process and prompt reflection on things which would have gone otherwise unheeded and unexamined. And thus it was with many of the comments from that post, exemplified by Dr. Rangel’s thoughts above: what is prayer really about? What is its nature, and why do I consider it important? How can a physician–a rational scientist by training and disposition– amalgamate the cold realm of reason–with its theory-test-evaluate-prove methodology–with the far more ephemeral, nebulous world of the spirit which prayer embodies? Man, I hate it when I think of questions even I can’t answer–which of course has never stopped me from waxing poetic and pontificating proudly on that about which I know little or nothing. So set your B.S. alarms to silent (so as not to wake the neighbors), hike up those hip boots, and let’s wade in.
Continue reading “The Conversation”

The Choice of Fools

Reflection nebulaThis may come as a shock to many of you — I hope you are sitting down — but I am no longer young.

Yes, I’m afraid it’s true.

At 55, my health is good, I stay reasonably fit and exercise regularly, and am losing the pounds which seem to cling to my running boards like mud on an off-road Range Rover.

But my back aches in the morning, my knees hurt and crackle when I stand, my hair is silvering, sobering furrows frown back at me from the mirror, and activities once taken in stride now leave me discouragingly weary.

Something else — far deeper — happens as you age: your losses mount. The dreams of youth — once passionate and optimistic — begin peeling away like aging paint, checkered by the weathering of time and the harsh sunlight of life and its limitations.

Some visions die with brutal abruptness: a passion for music shattered in the fraction of a second it takes board to blow off table saw. Some die slowly, almost imperceptibly: the acquired skills of endless hours of software development, crying out to be leveraged into a career of mapping intractable real-life problems to the rigid logic of data flow and control statements, recedes as larger purpose and renewed passion in medicine and reflective writing trumps longstanding obsession.

But something else happens with age, if you are fortunate: you begin to get a measure of perspective, as your once-treasured bangles fall away, revealed for the insubstantial veneer they always were. Your vision gets longer — events painful and pleasurable take on new meaning, often quite different from impressions gleaned at their occurrence. And time: time becomes more precious, as the endless reserves of youth grow leaner, the storehouse of minutes once unlimited begins to deplete. If your life has purpose, each moment is a jewel to be treasured as precious, used to good purpose; if not, the minutes drip endlessly and pointlessly from a cracked cistern too soon to be empty.
Continue reading “The Choice of Fools”

Grace 4 U2

Bono of U2After seemingly endless weeks recently of watching Tom Cruise air-box, jump on chairs, pontificate on depression, and talk about the idiocy of Scientology, it’s definitely refreshing — yea, one might even say a veritable antidepressant — to have some sanity expressed by another celebrity who appears to have a more rational cerebrum (although, granted, not as much of a pretty boy). Swiftly and with Style (HT: In the Agora) finds an intriguing quote from Bono, of U2 fame, in his book Bono in Conversation:

It \'s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the Universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma. . . .You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics --in physical laws --every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It \'s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the Universe. I \'m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so will you sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I \'ve done a lot of stupid stuff. . . .

I \'d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I \'d be in deep sh-t. It doesn \'t excuse my mistakes, but I \'m holding out for Grace. I \'m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don \'t have to depend on my own religiosity.

I love the idea that God says: Look, you cretins, there are certain results to the way we are, to selfishness, and there \'s mortality as part of your very sinful nature, and let \'s face it, you \'re not living a very good life, are you? There are consequences to actions. The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. That \'s the point. It should keep us humbled… It \'s not our own good works that get us through the gates of Heaven.

It’s a little scary when Karma and Christ get mentioned in the same breath — from a rock star never seen without his wrap-around shades and so-cool demeanor — in a literary aside laced with the appropriate profanities, moreover — and it’s one of the clearest expressions of how the world works you’ve heard in months. God’s a very funny guy sometimes, and uses rather peculiar mouthpieces — which gives me great hope indeed.
Continue reading “Grace 4 U2”

The Prayer of Java

Recently, in an e-mail exchange, Gerard Van der Leun brought up the issue of prayer, and how it was a difficult learning experience for him. Like so much in the world of web logs, a seed gets planted which starts you thinking. Well, Gerard’s been thinking — and writing — while I’ve had this post sitting in my drafts box for a month. Seems like one of those pokes in the ribs that awakens you when you’re in the blessed arms of Morpheus — and snoring…

The subject of prayer is a fascinating one for me in many ways, not only because of its effect on my life, but because — as a logical-sequential scientist by profession and disposition, I want to understand how it works — and I don’t, and I can’t. But it does. And that cognitive dissonance drives me a little nuts.

Billions of words have been written on prayer, by foolish and wise, scholarly and simple. For the secular skeptic, baptized into the random meaninglessness of a life accidental, it must seem odd — if they stop to think of it, which I suspect they rarely do — that mankind throughout eons and cultures has devoted so much time and energy to a pointless litany of words directed to the non-existent. Even among we who confess to the existence and significance of a Being higher than ourselves, prayer confounds and frustrates us, as we search for some formula, some talisman to garner the attention and blessing of the invisible, inscrutable deity.

But this does not keep us from trying. The drunk asks God to help him out of this jam, promising not to drink again. The agnostic pleads with God that the biopsy not show cancer. The unhappy spouse prays that her husband change to her liking. We pray for money, for success, for jobs, for relief from emotional agony and physical pain. We pray ritualistically, hoping that by repetition an indifferent or annoyed God will throw some crumb our way to get us off His case.

Prayer, perhaps more than anything else, reveals what we think about God and about ourselves in relationship to such deity. If our God is remote, abstract, indifferent, then our prayers will have the character of whistling through the graveyard — hoping against hope that the very act of addressing this unknown force will ward off fear of some greater evil closer at hand. If we serve an angry, judgmental power — vengeful and quick to accuse — then we will pray from fear, pleading nervously for mercy while recommitting ourselves to the required perfection we have no hope of achieving. If we worship Santa Claus, then endless lists of self-gratifying demands will appear, as we hope we have been less naughty than nice.
Continue reading “The Prayer of Java”