Monday, April 07, 2003

Does God believe in you?

I'm about to do something unusual. I'm about to get personal in a way I have never done before, either on this blog or anywhere else. I've been wanting to do this for some time, but haven't yet had the opportunity. Forgive me if the following comes out rather muddled. It is my first attempt to put into words something I have been thinking a lot about lately. Kevin Drum brings up an interesting question about liberalism and "the perfectibility of mankind". He points to some conservative criticism which states that liberalism will always fail because it subscribes to the false notion that man can be perfected. This is in contrast to the belief of many on the right that man is hopelessly condemned to corruption and only an external saviour can redeem us. The best we can hope for is to hold off the darkness until that saviour comes. Kevin disagrees with this idea. He thinks that liberalism, at least for him, derives from the belief that, while mankind is hopelessly corruptible, it is the purpose of government to "force people to act like decent human beings even if they don't want to." (please note: this is my paraphrase of his comment. Please read them and judge for yourself.) I think there are as many different strains of political belief as there are people who spend the time analyzing the question. But I think that they can be categorized into similar strains and that, up to a point, the conservative critics are correct. There is a strain of liberalism that believes that mankind can be perfected through its own efforts alone. This belief is the counter-weight to the end-time conservatives who are simply ticking off the minutes until their saviour returns. The mistake the end-timers make is to assume that all liberals are of this stripe (as Kevin demonstrates). Liberals make the similar mistake of think that all conservatives are of the end-timer variety. I personally think both of these beliefs are crocked. Man is hopelessly flawed, yes, in that we are not God and thus we can never completely rise above our petty faults. However, man can save himself through the exercise of his own faculties, at least to the point where we can reject the appeal of the nihilists ("just give up dude") and the avaricious ("just give in dude"). After all, why would we be given the ability to think these things out if not to use those abilities to achieve something greater than ourselves? To think otherwise would be to suggest that God created us in order to make us suffer (i.e., it is a belief that suggests that we were condemned to hell from the beginning). I have always felt this to be true. It was only recently that I came upon a justification for this belief that goes beyond a simple feeling. It is an idea based in religion and it comes down to a simple question: why, if God has the ability to create us in an unflawed state, does he allow us to continue in the flawed state that we exist in today? Put even more simply: why does God allow evil to exist? Consider the alternative: if God were to intervene in the world and save us from ourselves, then would that not be an admission on God's part that we are incapable of helping ourselves as the end-timers suggest? God could make us perfect from the beginning. He could alter our consciousness at a moment in a way that would end all evil everywhere. Yet he does not. Why? Think back to the story of Job. God allows Satan to inflict a world of suffering on God's most faithful servant in response to Satan's assertion that Job is faithful only because he's got it so good. "Take away all the goodies and he will curse your name," says Satan. God lets him prove it. So Job loses it all. He suffers the worst sort of calamities. His fortune, his family, his health, his very mental state are all laid waste. He curses his condition. He curses the fates. He curses his companions who urge him to repent for the sins which must have been the cause of his condition. But he never curses God, Satan loses the bet, and Job is returned once more to the bosom of God's comfort. This story has always bothered me on many different levels. In its simple presentation it sounds like God takes a kind of sick delight in the punishment of his most faithful followers. But that is true only if you think that faith is simply of saying, "I believe" and being rewarded with prosperity and well being. This was Satan's assertion. By allowing his servant to go through hell, God was proving the point that faith has nothing to do with protestations of belief, prosperity or well being. It has everything to do with being closer to God, closer to the perfection of God, closer to that state in which our flaws no longer cause us pain and suffering. By not intervening, God was proving the point that Job alone was the only one who could save himself and the only way he could do so was to simply not curse the name of God. Job proved his faith in God. But, even more so, God proved his faith in Job. For, if God had intervened and saved Job from his suffering he would have proved Satan's point that mankind will always be an ungrateful rabble. Similarly, God does not intervene in the affairs of man. He does not save us from ourselves for the simple reason that he has faith that we can rise above our wretched condition and become closer to him without him having to force salvation upon us. In other words, only God can perfect us, but only if we allow him to do so. The problem I have with the "perfectibility left" is that they think man can do it on his own. It is a hubristic notion that man is perfectible through his efforts alone and hubris is one of the greatest roadblocks to a closer relationship with God. The problem I have with the "end-timer right" is that they think that man has nothing to do with it at all, that we are all worthless, and that the best we can do is beat down the darkness until the trumpet sounds and the worthy are raptured away. To a certain extent, the story of Job agrees with this notion. The problem, of course, is that few of us have the unbridled faith of a Job. Few of us have his strength. Therefore, I think it is through acts of kindness and charity and the creation of a better world that we help ourselves to achieve a state where we can better express our faith. After all, God is not increased by a single act of charity. It is only ourselves that are improved by these acts. Yet charity is a big requirement in many religions for achieving a closer relationship with God. Does that not therefore imply that improving our condition, and the condition of others, is one of the primary means God has given us to achieve a closer relationship with him? I reject both extremes. I believe that God created us flawed specifically to prove that even flawed beings can overcome their flaws and return to receive the perfection of God. It is only when we see beyond our flaws that we can receive that gift. This was, I think, the nature of his bet with Satan. I take great comfort in the idea of a God who believes in me enough to believe that I, that we, can do better. Some people ask the question, "Do you believe in God?". I ask the question, "Does God believe in you?"


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6:30 PM  

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