Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Does God Care for You and Me?

Instinctively I have to, or want to, say "Yes, certainly God cares for me and everyone else (at least if he exists)". But why should I be so confident in that? Perhaps is it my background: growing up in a Christian family and inheriting that assumption. Not all religions would teach that about God. If Christian doctrine is a sufficient reason for you believing something, then no need to read further. But if like me you want something more, then join me in asking this question:

Is there any actual evidence that God cares for people in general, or Christians in particular?

I remember from my church-going days a proof given periodically by preachers of this. After preaching on God's care for his followers, the preacher would ask a question like this: "Is there anyone here who God has not provided for when you were in desperate need?" And of course no one raises a hand. Wow -- surely most people have been in some sort of great need during their lives, and if God provided for them then that's a 100% batting average on God's part. What more could you ask for?

There are a number of problems with this demonstration, and here is the big one that made me a bit uncomfortable even in much church-days. Say someone was in desperate need and God didn't provide. Well, he would die. And clearly there have been many Christians in desperate need of healing or something else to keep them alive, but didn't get it and died. By asking this question to the living members of his congregation, the preacher has effectively excluded anyone who could convincingly say "No, God didn't provide for me and I died." So if you exclude the nays, then it is not too surprising you will get 100% yeas.

The classic demonstration from nature that God must care for us is attributed to Jesus. Consider Luke 12:22-24: And [Jesus] said to his disciples, "Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!" Granted, we are more valuable than ravens. And granted, I have not seen any dead ravens. I am not sure it follows that God feeds them in their need. If so the population of ravens would have exceeded all other birds by now. Rather it seems more likely that ravens die of starvation or thirst when food or water are scarce just like other animals. That puts a pretty big hole in the argument that God cares for us by analogy to ravens.

Instead of discovering evidence that God cares for those in need, the opposite seems to be the case. There is so much needless suffering in this world, and so many untimely deaths. Here I am not addressing the problem of suffering; I just want to find some positive evidence that God cares for those in need. Anecdotes of good coming out of times of desperate need are encouraging, but have to be balanced by the innumerable times desperate need leads to tragic death. So I am at a loss in finding evidence that God cares for you and me.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Two Faces of Christianity

There are two conflicting sides of Christianity that I see in our culture. Let me call these the Utopian side and the Militant side. Both of these are found and justified in many passages of the New Testament. And yet they present divergent, if not diametrically opposite, views of what Christianity means.

The Utopian Christian loves his neighbor (and everyone in the world) as much as himself. He has compassion on the poor and downtrodden and sacrifices his well-being for theirs. He rejoices in affliction and even afflicts himself with fasting and other hardships. He does not judge or condemn others. He gives to whoever asks from him. He is a pacifist who will not strike back or retaliate when slapped on the face. He loves his enemy, will not speak evil of him behind his back, and prays for his well-being.

The Militant Christian, on the other hand, sees this world as a spiritual battle ground. What is important is whether people are going to heaven or hell, not their physical condition or whether they are fed or content. Evil spiritual forces are impinging on good and must be fought. People must be pulled out of the jaws of hell. Whatever means that accomplish this are justified even if they harm people. Evil is defined as what contravenes the revealed will of God (i.e. Bible). Condemnation of immorality is a staple, especially anything to do with sex or sexual orientation that isn't sanctioned in the Bible.

If something saves lives or pulls people out of poverty or helps the downtrodden or leads to greater happiness, the utopian Christian is likely to support it. These factors, however, are not particularly relevant to the militant Christian. Things for him are judged on an absolute moral scale, rather than on a harm/benefit scale. The militant Christian attacks policies that could be seen as condoning immoral behavior, even if they could literally save thousands of lives. This includes attacking sex education and providing condoms to poor nations to protect them from the spread of HIV. A similar reasoning leads to attacking same-sex marriages -- it doesn't matter whether or not it could lead to happier people. All that matters is that it contravenes what they see as God's ideal for the world. Other similar ideals by some Christians include banning contraception use including condoms, (even though contraception undoubtedly protects millions of unwanted children from coming into the world), and banning suicide and euthanasia even for terminally ill people in great pain. The merits of each of these could be debated on a harm/help basis, but this is irrelevant to the militant Christian who sees everything through a black-white, moral-immoral lens.

Freedom of belief and religion are certainly not ideals of the militant Christian. If a belief system (or religion) is going to lead people astray and into eternal torture in hell, why should that be legal or tolerated? The militant Christian has few qualms in leveraging the state's powers to further the spread of the gospel and halt the spread of other "nefarious" beliefs.

I have just described the extremes of these views. Both can surely find plenty of support in the Bible. And Christians hold a whole spectrum of beliefs spanning these two extremes. But what I find sad is that the second of these faces seems to be winning. While modern Christians still pay lip service to the utopian ideals espoused by Jesus, in practice they have ditched them as ineffective. I presume they judge it less effective to live a selfless life, than to rail judgments against all the evils they see and lobby politicians to fight their cause. Turning on the radio or scanning the blogsphere or listening to sermons, it is the shouts of Christian soldiers that are drowning out the quiet voices of their utopian brethren.