Friday, December 26, 2008

So continuing on... that skepticism, that unwillingness to accept answers that are a bit too easy, is where I've been for the past several months. It's an odd sort of no man's land. I think of it as being in abeyance (I love that word). I have, on the one hand, a set of experiences with spirituality that I can't ignore. I have a number of ideas and opinions, some of which line up with a traditional religious system and some of which don't, that I use to explain those experiences to myself. But sometimes when I hear someone express their own opinions on these topics (as Young does in The Shack), I realize how silly it is to claim with any degree of authority at all that I know what's going on out there in the universe.

And it's part of my problem with The Shack, to be honest. Where does he get the nerve to speak for God? Isn't that really what he's doing, by imagining how God would respond to Mack's questions? How does he have that chutzpah? It partly makes me angry that he would even try; but it also makes me a bit envious. Last year, in my nano novel, my original plan was that the main character, a young woman in her twenties, would have extremely vivid dreams about being a follower of Jesus during his three years of ministry on earth. The narrative would alternate between her normal, everyday life and the dreams that she was having every night. But it completely stalled out because I couldn't do exactly what Young does-- I couldn't speak for Jesus. I could imagine the situation and the plot outline and where I thought it was going, but when it came right down to writing an encounter between the main character and Jesus, I couldn't do it. So whatever chutzpah it takes to do this, I don't have it. And maybe don't want to have it.

and round and round on the spiral of spiritual growth we go.... and I find myself back again at the place where I realize that in honoring one side of my experience (the skepticism and cynicism), I've moved too far toward that pole and neglected the spiritual side. And for that reminder, I am grateful to Mr. Young, as irritating as I found this book at times.

I'm not at all sure that these three posts say what I was trying to say. Usually I spend quite a bit of time polishing them up before I am ready to leave them alone. but it won't happen this time since we're leaving to go out of town in the morning and I'm about to fall asleep at the keyboard here. So if anybody reads them between now and the time when I get back and have time to edit them, my apologies for murkiness.

off to frolic in the sun (I hope)
So... although this is a continuation of the previous post, none of this is really in The Shack.  It's just what I've been thinking about since I read it.  The story addresses the classic conundrum of faith, which can be phrased in any number of ways that we've all heard.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  how can a good and loving God allow evil to exist?  There are a number of different ways to say it.  And there are plenty of proposed answers out there.  Books and books have been written on this topic.  Some of the most remarkable and compelling writing out there-- from the dawn of recorded thought practically-- comes out of human beings' attempt to answer questions like these.  

But of course no one really knows.  The Shack takes a very similar tack to the answers I was raised with:  God's love for us is most strongly expressed through God's commitment to allowing us to exercise our free will, our ability to choose to act in whatever way we want.  True love would never force us into acting or believing a certain way (the argument goes).  So, God cannot intervene to protect us from harm without infringing on our (or someone else's) free will; therefore, God lets us screw up.  It's a creative solution, with enough flexibility and complexity to allow for any situation in which people are hurting people.  And it has the benefit, for Christians, of being grounded in the Judaeo-Christian scriptures.  There isn't any direct reference to free will in the Bible, but it is implied right from the start, with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden-- whether you read it literally or metaphorically.  God didn't have to allow them access to the forbidden fruit, but God allowed them to choose.  God shows his/her love for creation not by preventing evil from happening, but by redeeming the evil that we've participated in through the act of Jesus on the cross.  I think most of my readers are familiar enough with this that I can get away with that shorthand version of explaining something that is actual a very beautiful and complex theology.

But one of the main problems with this beautiful bit of theology is that it only works when you are inside the belief system.  It takes the raw material of our experience of bad things happening, and the basic tenets of the Christian faith, and comes up with a solution that works.  But if you're not inside the belief system, this set of beliefs looks remarkably like a smoke screen that allows us to continue to believe in God when in fact God may not exist at all.  We've come up with a way to explain away God's lack of action to prevent evil, but wouldn't it be just as easy to look at the evidence before us and come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as God?  don't you have to at least allow for the possibility that the emperor isn't wearing any new clothes at all?

I've heard it said, by yet another creative theologian, that it is part of God's nature not to act in any way that would force humans to believe in him (or her, although that seems slightly unnecessary here since this type of belief usually goes along with seeing God as Father).  In other words, God will never act in such a way as to unequivocally prove that God exists, because doing so would force us to believe in him (/her), and that would be an infringement of our free will.  Another creative explanation, which may be true.  But it also might not. 

As an aside and an excuse and an apology, I'll just say here that this isn't turning out to be a linear train of thought, I'm just typing what I've been thinking.  it may not make much sense.

I was not encouraged to ask these kinds of questions when I was growing up, and I don't have the kind of personality that would have forced the issue by persisting in asking them.  I'd much rather get along, smooth things over, and keep everybody happy.  I was more than willing to accept pat answers and go along for the ride.  The problems didn't arrive until many years later when I was deep, deep into a particular religious viewpoint and it no longer explained the things that I wanted explained.  So I am left at this point in my life with a deep suspicion of (and resentment of) ideas and arguments that want me to shut up and stop asking questions.   And that's often how these arguments feel to me.  

have to run.  to be continued.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Shack

The Shack is a novel by William P. Young that tells the story of a heartbroken father's attempt to come to terms with the murder of his young daughter.  It is also a Christian morality tale.  Mack, the father, receives a handwritten note from "Papa" inviting him to go back to the shack in the woods where his daughter was murdered.  When he gets there, he has an encounter with three Beings who are, well....  God.  A number of interesting conversations take place among the four of them, and Mack returns to his normal life a changed man.  

It's an interesting book.  It brought up for me many of the same visceral reactions I had to Blue Like Jazz, which I reviewed awhile ago.  But many people whom I care very much about have been moved by The Shack, and the person who recommended that I read it is very dear to me.  So I am trying not to see it through the eyes of my cynicism.  It would be easy to rip it apart.  So easy.  But on the other hand, there is a great deal of wisdom in his re-imagining of God, and I don't want to dismiss it lightly.  

There were a number of books published in the eighties, or maybe early nineties, where a Christian author set up a hypothetical debate between various different famous Christian and secular figures, mostly historical.  The historical figures would debate an issue, and of course, the Christian character always ended up trouncing the secular character.  They were entirely irritating to read, because of course it is easy to win an argument when you are setting it up, putting words into the mouths of the people you disagree with, and then skewering them.  I can win an argument like that, too.   But they were very popular among a certain crowd.

The Shack reminded me of this a bit.  It is less irritating than they were, because it is clearly fiction.  Within the story, the author does his best to set it up as being a factual occurrence, but it is marketed as fiction, and labeled as fiction.  No one is trying to say that Mack's weekend at the shack really happened.  And it's a good thing, because that's the only way the story works:  as an author's imagining of what it would be like to be able to confront God with your deepest pain, your most difficult questions.  And then to imagine how God would respond.  Young's vision is compelling in many ways.  He points out, as does the author of the book of Job and many others since, that God is far more vast than our tiny human brains can comprehend, and that what seems painful and difficult to us may be part of something larger that is beyond our comprehension.  But he does it in the context of a story that makes it particularly accessible to someone who has similar questions.  I imagine there are a lot of people who have found a great deal of healing through reading this book.

But the fact remains that of all the multitudes of human beings who have had their hearts broken, not a single one has received a handwritten note from God inviting them to a weekend of direct interaction with the Almighty, much as they might wish, pray and even beg for the opportunity.  And although there's little in the book that I flat out disagree with (since it's fiction, after all-- it's hard to disagree when all the author is saying is "This is what I imagine it would be like to talk directly to God"), there's a great deal that he seems to feel that he has "proven" through this story, when actually he hasn't proven anything at all.  He's just shared his ideas of what such a weekend might be like.  If you read it from that perspective, it's fascinating, and thought-provoking.  I'm glad I read it.  It helped me define somethings for myself, but maybe I will save that for the next post, as this one has gone on long enough.