Birth and Rebirth: A True Story

Ginny, my former student,  had an amazing story to tell at the recent high school reunion. Ginny is one of the best and the brightest–everyone likes to be around her. She’s funny, a great storyteller, and on the whole, as cheery an individual as you could every hope to meet. But that hasn’t always been the case.   A few years back in the very month she graduated there was a terrible car accident and her best friend, Amy, was killed. Amy and Ginny had been inseparable all senior year.  They had just said goodbye for the summer, and were looking forward to being close to each other in neighboring colleges in the fall.  Then two weeks later, in the blink of an eye, Amy was gone forever.

Ginny told me she was devastated to the point of despair.   How could this be?   What does it mean, when life is so cruel that someone is snatched away in the prime of life? How can we begin to make sense of this?

Then Ginny got some more shocking news. Her mother was going to have a baby. She had been quite young when Ginny was born, and now wanted to start a family with her new husband.   Ginny was really upset. All she could think was, “How can you do this? How can you bring another child into this horrible world of pain and suffering, where you’re doomed to death the minute you are born?” She was so angry she could barely speak to her mother.

She started college but it didn’t work out.  Grief had taken over. Thoughts of Amy haunted her day and night.   She dropped out after a semester and didn’t know what to do with herself.   She was about as deep into the Slough of Despond as a person can get.

Then something happened.   Her baby sister was born. Ginny took one look at her and fell in love. “As soon as I saw this tiny little life, everything changed. My little sister is the joy of my life.   I love her so much, I can’t even find the words. And as she’s gotten older, it just gets better and better.” Here Ginny began to choke up. “ She drew me out of this dark place—I can’t even describe it.”

This is the Sacrament of Birth, that transcendent joy so deeply felt, so beyond words that you don’t even feel like you’re on Planet Earth any more. You’ve found a special connection with another human being and that makes life worth living.   The joy of those first moments can lift you out of the deepest depression, and as the child grows and begins to walk, talk, and laugh, the bonds only grow stronger.

Ginny says the birth of her sister was her salvation…

Is it too much to say that Ginny herself was born again?

 

Christianity and Islam in the Pursuit of Pain

The greatest threat to the modern world can be found in the revival of a belief from the Middle Ages: the pursuit of pain is a good thing. As Stephen Greenblatt points out in his recent book The Swerve, once upon a time there was a notion that inflicting pain upon our sinful bodies was a holy pursuit.   To mimic the kind of pain that the Savior experienced on the road to Golgotha would allow us to share the sanctity of His suffering, so it was not unusual in those benighted times to wear a hairshirt, or to find groups of flagellants publically flogging themselves with iron-pointed whips, or monks beating each other with rods, all in an effort to imitate Christ.

Common sense would dictate that this is a bad idea. It calls to mind that unfortunate group of young people today who are cutting themselves in order to feel the pain.   Any parent who finds their child has sunk into this practice will get that child to a therapist as quickly as possible.   Homo sapiens is programmed to  pursue the pleasures of life, not the pains, but in the Middle Ages a powerful force overrode this basic instinct. That force was belief in the afterlife.

Yes, the afterlife… The Great Beyond… The Happy Hunting Ground– or the Not-So-Happy if you have been a sinner and failed to get right with God before the end. As Greenblatt reminds us, Sir Thomas More’s 16th century book Utopia which was so progressive in many of its policies (sharing the wealth, universal health care, freedom of religion) drew a hard line in the sands of that fabled island: if you did not believe in the rewards and punishments of a heaven and hell, you would be executed immediately. Rejection of an afterlife was dangerous in Utopia, because without the fear of hell, More felt that people will always try to lie, cheat, and murder their way into greater wealth and power.    We only need jails and punishments in the here and now because people don’t believe in the punishments of the hereafter.

Sir Thomas may have been right about the power of the fear of God.   Certainly there is no sign since the Enlightenment began increasing the ranks of the atheists that we’ve created a Utopia anywhere, though Scandinavia may be getting close. But More was beyond a doubt wrong about making the afterlife the foundation of his belief system. Under radical Islam, that belief is what is causing so much senseless death and destruction every day, coupled as it is with a revival and glorification of the medieval pursuit of pain.   Who would ever have believed that this cult of death would take root in the 21st century, a cult where suicide bombers and martyrdom become the highest form of community service, where men and women are encouraged to undertake “missions” that they know will lead to their painful deaths, all for a misguided idea that a reward awaits you in Paradise?

Some might argue that it’s not belief in an afterlife per se that is the problem, but rather, the particular afterlife that is being peddled to these would-be heroes.  But the problem here is that, if you are a rational creature, you would like some evidence of which afterlife that’s being offered by the religions of the world is the genuine article and not some knock-off fakery.    How would you talk a suicide bomber out of his belief that the koranic Paradise is really there, just waiting for him if he blows himself up in the right spot? By offering him an alternative view? Christ on the cross? Abraham’s bosom? Angels hosanna-ing?

What would therapy be for a deluded young person whose greatest aspiration is to be a martyr? Perhaps if we do in fact need the fear of God to keep the world from disintegrating it should be the God of Compassion–focused on making this life as pleasant as possible for as many as possible without reference to what happens when we cross that unknowable Divide.

Jimmy Carter Edits the Bible

An astonishing bit of news from former President Jimmy Carter on behalf of a group called the Elders:

“The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable.”

In short: don’t believe everything you read in the Bible.   What’s more, because the Southern Baptist Convention does in fact find the discrimination of women “acceptable” (i.e., biblical, so just do it) Carter has ended his association with that influential group. Let me remind you that the Southern Baptists are  15 million strong—second in size only to Catholics in the USA.

The astonishing part is the reason Carter gives for deeming this practice of discrimination unacceptable:

“The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.”

Wow.   President Carter rejects certain verses because they can’t be direct orders from a divine Being despite the fact that they are in a holy book. Why can’t they? Because there is a higher authority than what some guy thousands of years ago wrote down on a piece of papyrus, a higher authority that lies within each of us: Reason. If a practice like slavery causes suffering to a whole class of people, it cannot be just or what God wants us to do. If half the population is reduced to a kind of sexual slavery because of a certain verse on an old parchment passed down from father to son for a couple of millennia, then toss that verse in the trash can of oblivion and let’s live according to a different standard: the Greater Good based on the rights of all human beings.

Carter’s welcome apostasy opens up the door to a room we so badly need right now in the world: the editing room, a place where so-called holy writ is analyzed and large sections consigned to the dustbin, from Balaam’s ass to the virgin birth. People have been busily at work in this room since Epicurus first wrote that the gods have no interest in us mortals, so lets get on with finding the best way to enjoy our lives together. It’s a room where Socrates, Hus, Bruno and a host of others have labored until overwhelmed by the forces of the dark side.

President Carter’s declaration means we should think about each and every verse in the Bible and every other holy book, asking ourselves “is this a keeper?”  and the gauge can be found in the precepts of Humanism.

For more on this subject try “Sam Harris to Muslims: Edit Your Sacred Texts!”