God: Unclear on the Concept

First, an apology to my atheist and agnostic friends, among whom are some very understanding, loving people. I no more consider the following comment-trolling rant representative of atheist thinking than (I hope) you consider the ravings of Pat Robertson or Bryan Fischer representative of all Christians.

Second, here is an interesting video in which a Christian survivor of the Aurora shooting attributes his survival to God. He also says that he forgives his attacker:

Third, here is an excerpt of one commenter’s thoughts on the above video.

No. You do not get to co-opt human herosim to try and make a questionable deity seem better. Those people risked their lives to save others because they were good people, and it is the human thing to do, to protect the ones you care about. You have no idea what religion any of them were, and to say their actions were related to “God” is ridiculous…. Without considereing “God”, we can focus on the people, who commited many noble acts, adn DO warrant praise and remembrence.

…This is not the sort of act that should be forgiven. It is an insult to those who died, it is an insult to those who survived, it is an insult to the families and loved ones who weren’t there but were affected, and it is an insult to everyone who goes through life following the rules, and caring for/respecting the lives of the people around them. If this shooting was “God’s” plan, he’s not worth following. If it was the work of Satan then it shouldn’t be forgiven it should be condemned. If there are no gods or demons and this was the act of a very wrong headed human being (my bet), then that person deserves to be punished, not forgiven. At the absolute lightest, some external influence drove whoever committed this shooting insane, in which case they are due some understanding, but never forgiveness.

“There are none worthy of judging others but ‘God’.” Bullsh-t. “God” if he even exists, is the last person worthy of judging events like this. “God” doesn’t live with us, doesn’t walk the earth, and doesn’t face the same perils and hardships that we humans do. We the men and women who live as a cooperative society who are put at risk by such senseless acts are the ONLY beings in the universe who have a place to judge them. And whatever that judgment ends up being, it absolutely should NOT be forgiveness.

In one way, I have no problem with the commenter’s anger, his immediate response, and the question he raises. The proper response to this kind of thing very well may be outrage. Demanding justice from an apparently unjust God has a long tradition even in the Bible.

There are two things that bother me about this line of thinking, though. The first is the whole concept of “deserving.” I have found that many functional atheists (and I include some Christians in my definition) have a pretty clear idea of who deserves what. Atheists of the sort that subscribe to libertarian ideas tend to believe in a hierarchy of worth, where some people (“job creators,” innovators, smart folks like us) have much more value than others (freeloaders, the mentally ill, poor people). It is pretty clear to folks who think this way that some people deserve punishment and others deserve reward. The only place I encounter this kind of judgmental attitude to the same degree is among fundamentalist Christians, folks who have the reprehensible theology of Representative Louie Ghomert (R-Texas):

“You know, when people say, where was God in all of this? Well, you know, . . . we’ve threatened high school graduation participants that if they use God’s name that they’re going to be jailed, we had a principal of a school, and a superintendent or a coach down in Florida that were threatened with jail because they said the blessing at a voluntary off campus dinner. I mean, that kind of stuff… where is God? Where, where? What have we done with God? We told him that we don’t want him around. I kind of like his protective hand being present.”

People like Ghomert and Bryan Fischer blame liberals. People who advocate teaching evolution or tolerance for people of other sexual orientations are, in their bizarre narrative, complicit in the tragedy.

One thing I would like to convey to my atheist and agnostic brethren: the God of the Bible is the most humanist of us all.

I like to remind Christians that the Torah was written by freed slaves. Ground under the heel of Egyptian oppression, surrounded by giant statues of Pharaoh and images of his gods, they were reminded constantly of their subjugation, and that they were made by the gods to be slaves to the king. When they escaped to Mount Sinai and (allegedly) came face to face with their God, one of the first commandments was:

No graven images.

George Carlin called the commandments about idolatry and sabbath “hocus-pocus,” but he misunderstood how important they were to the freed slaves. Why no graven images? Because you don’t need them. God looks like y’all. You all, not Pharaoh, are made in the image of God. If you want to see an image of God, don’t look to the king or to some statue that someone tells you is a god—look at your neighbor. Look at a widow, an alien, an orphan. God is present even in the least of these.

By the way, freed slaves, says God: from now on, everyone gets a day off. Not only will the wealthy and powerful will have leisure time. Your boss has to let you off. Everyone gets a day to enjoy the creation, to sit back and say, “Yes, this is good.” This law is so important it is written into the fabric of creation, because even God models taking a day off. The first labor law is in the first chapter of Genesis. And it isn’t just for humans, but for animals, too, and not just for citizens, but aliens. You can’t abuse your animals. And you must give the land a rest. So the first environmental laws and animal rights laws are written into creation itself.

The whole trajectory of the Bible is not about a God who is somewhere above us dispensing laws, but a God who is coming down among humanity, taking humanity on, sanctifying what is truly human. As a Christian, I believe this happened most completely in Jesus of Nazareth, which is why the above commenter’s statement that God doesn’t face the same hardship as we do runs counter to everything I believe about God.

The best picture of God I have is a man allowing an evil system to execute him. He responds not in violence, but with a power that the world cannot understand. So in every act of senseless violence, I see God. It doesn’t matter if the violence is done by a troubled individual or a corporation or a state: all of them use similar rhetoric to justify their actions, because they have appointed themselves as this world’s petty gods to decide who deserves to live and who deserves to die.

This is how Dietrich Bonhoeffer interpreted the story of the Garden of Eden. The knowledge of good and evil is false knowledge. “Original sin” is the idea that I am the best judge of good and evil, that I can declare who is deserving and who is not. I cannot see that I am trapped in a web of sin, that even my reason and my religion are corrupt, and so I make myself into a god. In doing so, I reject the image of God in anything that doesn’t fit my own prejudices. Bonhoeffer was writing as the Nazis were coming to power, and he saw in their vision of themselves as a master race the logical conclusion of the sin of Adam and Eve: “We are like gods, deciding good and evil, powerful and wise.” The original sin, Bonhoeffer said, was that in rejecting our own humanity, we rejected God. Jesus’s death on the cross, Paul said, was a foolishness that was wiser than human wisdom. Jesus inverts the human pyramid of power: God is found not at the top, but at the bottom.

This, for me, is why fundamentalist atheists and fundamentalist Christians are so close in their opinions and (often) their politics. Neither can conceive of a God present and active in weakness or failure, who sides with the victims against their aggressors. Neither can see the irony of a state playing God with the life of a (possibly) mentally ill man who was himself playing God.

This is why I think everyone needs Jesus. Even fundamentalist Christians. Even atheists and agnostics. We all need Jesus, because he’s the only place where what is truly God and what is truly human meet and understand each other.