Thursday, September 24, 2015

Agnostics for Jesus? Thoughts On Sincerity and Hypocrisy

Domenico Fetti, The Parable of the Mote
and the Beam
I'm not a vegetarian, but if somebody told me they were a vegetarian as they chomped down a burger, I would feel justified in questioning their vegetarianism. Similarly, I'm not a religious man, but if somebody says they're a Christian, and then starts expressing right-wing political views that are at odds with what Jesus actually said, then I feel justified questioning their Christianity. If Jesus said "Blessed are you who are poor" and "Woe to you who are rich" then surely it's fair to ask how a Christian can scorn the poor and glorify the rich? If Jesus talked about the value of forgiveness, peace, mercy, and turning the other cheek, then isn't it fair to ask how a Christian can support hawkish foreign policies and the death penalty? Similar questions apply to the religious right's lack of empathy for immigrants, support for public displays of piety, and so on, as I discussed in another post.

On the other hand, I have enormous respect for Christians who try to live according to the things Jesus actually said about things like forgiveness, mercy, judging yourself before you judge others, having compassion for the poor and downtrodden, and so on. The other day a friend from college, who is that kind of Christian, mentioned on Facebook that he thought the religious right had forgotten what Jesus actually taught. Of course I agreed, saying I could see very little resemblance between Jesus' ethical teachings and the policies of the religious right. 

But then a strange thing happened. One of my friend's Republican (or possibly Libertarian) acquaintances said he couldn't imagine how anybody could call themselves Christian and back a candidate who supports gay marriage or abortion. And here's what really brought me up short--this guy wasn't a Christian. He was an agnostic like me, but with right-leaning political views. He didn't seem to be a hardcore pro-lifer, and I couldn't tell that he really cared about gay marriage one way or another, but he was questioning the sincerity of Christians who didn't take the right-wing view of these things. Why? Because he wanted Christians to be on his side politically, so they would support the other conservative policies he seemed to care about more (taxes and guns, I think). 

"Wow," I thought, "are we both just being cynical here, in order to get the Christians on our side? Am I doing the same thing he is, but with a different agenda?" And the answer is: of course I am. So the next question is: should I do that? Is that bad?

I'm really not quite sure. I don't think it's terrible, and one thing that makes me feel better is that I'm not twisting Christianity to suit my purposes. I honestly think Jesus meant what he said about forgiveness, mercy, judgement, and so on, and I think Jesus cared more about them than he would have about things like abortion and gay marriage, for the simple reason that he never mentioned either of those things. 

Plus, I honestly agree with what Jesus said about forgiveness, mercy, giving, etc. Well, I do up up to a point--I'm not actually going to give everything I own to the poor, turn the other cheek if someone hits me, or loan most people money without expecting them to pay me back. Still, I do think all the basic ideas here are wise and beautiful, if not taken to such extremes (was he engaging in hyperbole? Who knows?) I don't know if Jesus was the first to talk about the power of non-violence and forgiveness, of the importance of seeing your own faults before those of others, and of the need to watch for hypocrites and wolves in sheep's clothing, but his teachings were the first I heard about them, so he has been a real influence on my thinking. Similarly, he wasn't the first to talk about the Golden Rule, or loving thy neighbor, but his teachings were the first place I encountered those ideas, back in Sunday school. The point is, I don't have to believe Jesus was the son of God, or that he died for my sins and rose from the dead, to take him very seriously as a teacher of ethics and compassion.

And I honestly do think the religious right is ignoring those teachings while saying they want a country based on Christian values. As John Fugelsang said, "if you don't want your tax dollars to help the poor, then stop saying you want a country based on Christian values. Because you don't." Of course, liberals don't necessarily follow everything Jesus said either. But here's the thing: they're not the ones claiming to. It's the religious right saying they want more God in government, not liberals. I don't agree with everything Jesus said, myself--not by a long shot. But I'm not claiming to be a Christian, or saying the government should be run according to Christian values. I just think that if you are saying that, then you ought to support policies that reflect what Christ actually said. 

But still, seeing another agnostic question the sincerity of Christians who don't agree with him politically--that gave me pause. I still think I'm right and he's wrong (otherwise I would have changed my mind), but maybe I need to question my own motives when I question somebody else's sincerity. What about my own sincerity? Am I just trying to bend their beliefs to get them on my side? Obviously, to some extent I am--highlighting the things about Christianity I agree with, and downplaying the things I don't. Is that a cynical thing to do? I could probably keep writing and eventually convince myself that it isn't. But I think I'll stop while I'm still uncertain, because that's probably the most honest thing to do. Jesus said to take the beam out of your own eye before pointing out the mote in others, so maybe now is a good time to check my eyes for beams. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Squirrel's Lament

Walking home from work today, I came upon a baby squirrel lying dead in a puddle beneath a tree. It wasn't a newborn--it had all its fur, but its tail wasn't bushy yet. It was still covered with short, fine hair, and curled up over the squirrel's head like it was asleep in the nest above. I thought, as I always do after seeing such things, "Why does nature have to be so pitiless? Is that really necessary? Does such harshness serve some purpose?"

The writer of the Book of Genesis wondered the same things, and tried for an answer. According to that account, humans are to blame for nature's harshness. It's our doing, and our punishment. "Cursed is the ground because of you", God declared, after Adam and Eve had eaten the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Thorns and thistles spread over the Earth, and death and toil appeared for the first time. Not just for the first couple, either, but for all their descendants as well. 

But still, why the animals? Even if you accept the Genesis account as truth or as justice (I cannot accept it as either) the question remains: why should animals have to suffer for what two humans did? With the notable exception of the serpent, they didn't do anything to deserve it. In fact, if God had really wanted to drive his point home, he could have left the animals to live the carefree lives they led before the Fall. Then they could serve as a perpetual reminders to humans of how good they had it before they got so inquisitive. In any case, what would be the point of punishing animals for our transgressions? They can't even understand the story, can they?

But then, as I kept walking home, I reflected that things aren't as bleak as all that. I see no reason to think the Genesis account is true, and I'm thrilled not to believe I live in a universe ruled by a God who thinks it just punish the entire world--in perpetuity, generation after generation--because a single couple wanted to gain a little knowledge. A world like that wouldn't just be uncaring--it would be outright cruel and vengeful. I can handle living in an uncaring universe, but I don't think I could bear living in a cruel one. 

So, I lightened up a little. And then I lightened up some more when I saw my dog and asked him if he wanted to go for a walk (the answer is always yes, in the universal waggle-dance language of bulldogs). So out we went.

But then, without even thinking about it, I walked him right back past the puddle where I had seen the baby squirrel. This time, the mother was there. She was on the edge of the puddle, staring across it like a fisherman's widow. I wouldn't have expected that from a squirrel, but there she was. When she saw us she ran part-way up the tree and stared. I stopped and looked for her baby, but someone or something had already taken it away.

What was going through her mind, I wondered, as she sat staring across that puddle? Do squirrels grieve for lost children? Is she capable of counting her young, and finding that one is missing? Does she have the slightest clue what death means? Do squirrels have the imagination to ask why the world is so callous, or do they just accept it as the way things are? I don't know.

I don't know any of these things. I'm convinced she was upset, but I don't know how long it will last, or how deep her grief might run. As I walked away, she started scolding me, the way squirrels will do. For a second I had the insane thought that she had heard the story of Adam and Eve too, and was blaming me and my kind for the world's ugliness (would she be entirely wrong?). Then I came back to reality, and just felt sorry for her. I've been scolded by squirrels many times before, and I've always thought it was hilarious. After all, there's something ridiculous about being verbally abused by a rodent. But now, watching her standing in the crook of that tree, her little body shaking as she barked at me, I thought about why the others might have been scolding me in the past; what the circumstances might have been. And I don't think I'll laugh at them anymore.