Excerpts – the Sabbath

“There is no equivalent for the word “thing” in biblical Hebrew… an indication of an unwarped view of the world, of not equating reality (derived from the Latin word res, thing) with thinghood.

It is, indeed, a unique occasion at which the distinguished word qadosh is used for the first time: in the Book of Genesis at the end of the story of creation. How extremely significant is the fact that it is applied to time: “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy (qadosh).” There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed with the quality of holiness.

For where shall the likeness of God be found [in creation]? There is no quality that space has in common with the essence of God [the earth is his footstool]. There is not enough freedom on the top of the mountain; there is not enough glory in the silence of the sea. Yet the likeness of God can be found in time, which is eternity in disguise.

Six days a week we try to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self.

The real and the spiritual are one, like body and soul in a living man. It is for the law to clear the path; it is for the soul to sense the spirit.”

-Abraham Joshua Heschel

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Are You Answered?

About three hundred widows were sitting in scattered rows on a tarp. A sharp Telugu pitch began to whine through the crackling amplifier. With heads bowed and eyes closed, the women were asked to raise their hands if…

“You lost your husband to alcohol consumption?”

“Your husband was murdered?”

“You lost your husband to suicide?”

Widows in rural India are one of the most abused and neglected demographics in the world. They are considered a curse, stripped of their social utility at the moment of their husband’s passing. Historically, they were often tied to their husband’s corpse and burned alive at his cremation. We were there conducting a questionnaire, documenting a sorrow too deep for words.

“You were rejected both by your parents and your husband’s family?”

“You are unable to feed your children?”

It felt like that their hands were raised reaching towards Heaven for a reply. As if we had gathered there purposefully to lodge a formal complaint against our Maker, or perhaps to render a verdict against the God who doesn’t answer.

Excerpts – Siddhartha

“I believe that amongst all the Samanas, probably not even one will attain Nirvana. We find consolations, we learn tricks with which we deceive ourselves, but the essential thing – the way – we do not find.”

“It was just the divine art and intention that there should be yellow and blue, there sky and wood – and here Siddhartha. Meaning and reality were not hidden somewhere behind things, they were in them, in all of them.”

“And what are you now, Siddhartha?”
“I do not know; I know as little as you. I am on the way.”
“You have already learned from the river that it is good to strive downwards, to sink, to seek the depths. The rich and distinguished Siddhartha will become a rower; Siddhartha the learned Brahmin will become a ferryman.”

“I reviewed my life and it was also a river, and Siddhartha the boy, Siddhartha the mature man and Siddhartha the old man, were only separated by shadows, not through reality…Nothing was, nothing will be, everything has reality and presence…Was then not all sorrow in time, all self-torment and fear in time?”

“Never is a man wholly a saint or a sinner… No, the potential Buddha already exists in the sinner; his future is already there. The potential hidden Buddha must be recognized in him, in you, in everybody. The world, Govinda, is not imperfect or slowly evolving along a long path to perfection. No, it is perfect at every moment; every sin already carries grace within it, all small children are potential old men, all sucklings have death within them, all dying people – eternal life. It is not possible for one person to see how far another is on the way; the Buddha exists in the robber and the dice player; the robber exists in the Brahmin…
Therefore, it seems to me that everything that exists is good – death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly. Everything is necessary, everything needs only my loving understanding; then all is well with me and nothing can harm me.”

They all become part of the river. It was the goal of all of them, yearning, desiring, suffering; and the river’s voice was full of longing, full of smarting woe, full of insatiable desire. The river flowed on towards its goal… All the waves and water hastened, suffering, towards goals, many goals, to the waterfall, to the sea, to the current, to the ocean and all goals were reached and each one was succeeded by another… He could no longer distinguish the different voices – the merry voice from the weeping voice, the childish voice from the manly voice. They all belonged to each other: the lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of indignation and the groan of the dying…

He now felt as if these ordinary people were his brothers. Their vanities, desires and trivialities no longer seemed absurd to him; they had become understandable, lovable and even worthy of respect. There was the blind love of a mother for her child, the blind foolish pride of a fond father for his only son, the blind eager strivings of a young vain woman for ornament and the admiration of men. All these little simple, foolish, but tremendously strong, vital, passionate urges and desires no longer seemed trivial to Siddhartha. For their sake he saw people live and do great things, travel, conduct wars, suffer and endure immensely, and he loved them for it. He saw life, vitality, the indestructible Brahman in all their desires and needs. These people were worthy of love and admiration in their blind loyalty, in their blind strength and tenacity.

“To be able to regard the world and ourselves and all beings with love, admiration and respect…”
“But…he [the Buddha] forbade us to bind ourselves to earthly love…”
“And here we find ourselves within the maze of meanings, within the conflict of words, for I will not deny that my words about love are in apparent contradiction to the teachings of Gotama. That is just why I distrust words so much, for I know that this contradiction is an illusion. I know that I am at one with Gotama… his deeds and life are more important to me than his talk, the gesture of his hand is more important to me than his opinions. Not in speech or thought do I regard him as a great man, but in his deeds and life.”

…nothing separated him from all the other thousands who lived in eternity, who breathed the Divine.

Collision

What is your definition of truth?

Hitchens says that he would know how to define the struggle for it. He does not believe objectivity can be declared to have been arrived at or discovered, but that there are rules of etiquette such as honesty and scholasticism that we must follow in the unending search, “So that the struggle may go on.” He draws from Rabbi Hillel who said, “You may never win the battle, but you are not allowed to give it up.”

For the most part Wilson agrees with Hitchens’ exposition of the struggle for truth, but Wilson’s point of departure from Hitchens is characterized by Chesterton’s words, “An open mind, like an open mouth, must always be ready to clamp down on something.” The danger of an open mind seeking truth but refusing to close on truth is that it is perpetually open, and therefore on a self-defeating endeavor. Wilson agrees that man will never arrive at ultimate Truth, but he thinks some objective truths are knowable and ought to be insisted upon. He supports this illustration rather well by pointing out that Hitchens’ espousal of an honest and scholarly pursuit of truth is itself a truth on which his struggle may advance.

Is there a basis for truth in the world?

Hitchens essentially responds in the affirmative with his dismissal of relativism. He does not believe that subjectivity and individual perceptions cancel each other out.

Wilson points to his Bible. We can’t know anything apart from the revelation of God, who has revealed himself in Scripture and in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. This desire to appeal to the authority of Scripture stems from Wilson’s understanding of human nature. If man is fallen, then his standard cannot be his own rationality. We can’t know anything without presupposing a God who speaks. Quoting Shaeffer’s book title, “He is there and He is not silent.” We can’t know, find or discover God, but it does not follow from that that He cannot find us.

Hitchens interjects to ask if it isn’t self-contradictory to say that you can’t know or find God, and yet you know that He has revealed Himself to you, and you know the name of His son?

Is there a basis or standard for goodness and morality in the world?

Wilson asserts that Hitchens critiques of Christianity are without basis apart from the Christian worldview. Hitchens has to borrow standards of morality from the Christian faith in order to level his critiques of it. He likens this to climbing into the Christian car and driving it into a tree, because he doesn’t have a car of his own to drive.

Hitchens is aghast at the suggestion that, were it not for Christianity, you and I wouldn’t know right from wrong. The awareness of right and wrong is innate in human beings and can be viewed in societies where Christianity has never yet penetrated. “Are we to assume that the ancient Israelites got all the way to Mount Sinai under the assumption that murder, theft and perjury were ok? And only when told from on high, ‘stop with that,’ decided that they were bad ideas after all? Religion gets its morality from humans; it’s a feed-back unit.”

Wilson replies that there’s a difference between knowing the distinction between good and evil, and being able to give an accounting for it. His challenge is not that people don’t instinctively know right from wrong, they do. But how can you account for it given an evolutionary time and chance universe?

Hitchens points to an instinct: human solidarity – the brotherhood of man. We’ve never found a human society in which murder, theft, and perjury are admired or where courage and self-sacrifice are despised simply because that kind of society cannot survive. He notes that religious morality is subject to the same principles of evolution. The church used to say, “If you sin you go to Hell, you’ll burn forever,” and “If you don’t baptize your children, we won’t say it’s Hell outright, but it’s some kind of limbo.” Now they say, “Actually, we’re not so sure about that.”

Wilson objects to grounding morality in a human instinct like solidarity because we have competing instincts. And in the case of contrary instincts, you cannot introduce a third instinct to deliberate between the two.

Addressing Hitchens, Wilson says that he cherishes many of his denunciations of Christianity, but “I want to know, not what you denounce, but why you denounce it. At the end of the day there is no basis within your worldview for condemnations of this, that and the other thing.” Wilson can understand an atheist who says there is no God so “eat, drink and be merry – for tomorrow we die.” What he can’t understand is Hitchens’ fierce denunciations of people like Jerry Falwell who are just doing their thing, “doing what protoplasm does at these temperatures and under these conditions.”

Wilson notes that Hitchens’ says that the basic questions of morality are unresolved. So then why doesn’t he write like they are unresolved? Virtually in everything Hitchens writes, he denounces as though the questions of morality are completely and totally resolved. “Look Christopher, there is no God: shit happens. The universe just doesn’t care.”

Wilson believes the basis for morality that Hitchens himself is appealing to is the nature and character of God: The way God is which is revealed by means of Scripture and law. Law is a description of what God is like.

The conversation concludes with Wilson reiterating that any kind of morality that Hitchens might espouse can have no basis in something like instinct (because there are competing instincts) or popular opinion (because opinion changes). There’s no such thing as a standardless worldview, and you cannot function without constantly appealing to those standards. “I want to base everything on the Bible,” says Wilson.

Cue the somber music, Wilson begins a short homily utilizing John Lenin’s “Imagine.” “Imagine there’s no heaven above us, no hell below us. Above us only sky. Above Aushwitz, only sky. There are people in the history of this world who have believed that above them was only sky. Stalin believed that there was no justice in front of him. He was on his deathbed and did not believe that there was a God in front of him to whom he had to give an account. Couldn’t we all agree that it would have been better for a lot of people if Stalin had believed that there was justice ahead of him?”

Vicarious Redemption

Christopher Hitchens believes that the teachings of Christianity are immoral, with its central theme – the provision of vicarious redemption – being the most vulgar of them all. This doctrine teaches that you can abolish your responsibility by throwing your sins on somebody else. “No,” says Hitchens, “your responsibility must stay with you. To have your sins abolished by someone else is an unhealthy cultivation of wish-thinking.”

I like Hitchens and often times feel closer to him than to whatever Christian apologist he happens to be debating, but here I think his definition of love has failed him. Love has many faces. Its fullest expression comes in the form of agape, which C.S. Lewis describes as “Love that brings forth caring regardless of circumstance,” and Martin Buber summarizes concisely as “the responsibility of an I for a you.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky profoundly characterizes this love in the midst of his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, through the lips of an elderly monastic, Father Zosima:

There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all. Whereas by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God.

Zosima’s message is the central theme of the novel, and those who live by it invariably find redemption for themselves and for others. Those who don’t add only to the world’s suffering.

Hitchens is not wrong, he just lacks moral imagination. Yes, we ought to hold ourselves and each other responsible. But when we fail (and we will all fail), then we have an opportunity to consider taking Christ at his offer – making him responsible for our sins, so that we can do the same for others in turn.

At the heart of the Gospel we are called to redeem the world by bearing the iniquities of the other, making ourselves responsible for their sin and their salvation. If he steals your cloak, give him your tunic also. Now you have not only broken the cycle of retribution, but initiated a cycle of loving-kindness in its place: Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Christy’s Assurances

I remember the anticipation swelling in my chest as I accelerated down the aisle. “These are the words,” I thought, “the words that will let Jesus into my heart!” I remember Christy, the kind-hearted black woman, vivid with rosy cheeks and big, purple lips that turned her whole face into a smile.

 

During the final altar call of Vacation Bible School, after a week of morning altar calls, she pulled me aside wondering why on each day had I gone up to ask Jesus into my heart. I was relieved that someone had noticed. In all of my boyish frustration I told her, somewhat apprehensively, that “I must be saying it wrong.”

 

She asked me if I wanted to be saved. I replied that I did “with all my heart.” “Then you are saved!” she said, as if that was that. Seeing I was not convinced, she explained, “You just have to want salvation for it to be yours.” “Like make-believe?” I asked, suspiciously. “Yes,” she said with so much wisdom, “It’s just like make-believe at first.”

 

I am told my faith was strong then, and that my boyish prayers were fierce, as if I understood like Luther that the veracity of my belief would be determined by the sincerity with which I believed. But as I grew older my imagination became less convincing, and I started to question Christy’s assurances. Eventually I began looking again for whatever that little boy was trying to find at the altar.

 

I searched through the Pentecostal experience and wore Reformed theology like clothing. I went into the woods with my tent and my dog and I yelled back at thunderstorms. I read every book evangelicals read, and then I read the ones we didn’t read. I lived and worked with missionaries across the planet and checked at the local homeless shelter, but I couldn’t find God in my world, or Jesus in my heart.

 

I struggled so hard to find Him truly until all that was left was the sincerity of a child-like longing, and the determination of a belief from which my boyish prayers might be answered.

Called out

Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas:

 

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

This is usually explained to children when they are between eight and twelve, whenever they seem capable of understanding; and most of those who come to see the child are young people, though often enough an adult comes, or comes back, to see the child. No matter how well the matter has been explained to them, these young spectators are always shocked and sickened at the sight. They feel disgust, which they had thought themselves superior to. They feel anger, outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations. They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.

The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.

Often the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, when they have seen the child and faced this terrible paradox. They may brood over it for weeks or years. But as time goes on they begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom: a little vague pleasure of warmth and food, no real doubt, but little more. It is too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy. It has been afraid too long ever to be free of fear. Its habits are too uncouth for it to respond to humane treatment. Indeed, after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in. Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives. Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free…

But there is one more thing to tell, and this is quite incredible.

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or a woman much older falls silent for a day or two, then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman.

Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow- lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.