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Blessed

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On a recent Facebook post, I asked if there was any difference between blessing and good luck. I got different answers depending on what the respondent believed about the nature of the universe. They fell into three camps:

  1. The material universe is all there is. It is ruled by the laws of physics. Blessing is just a religious name for good luck.
  2. The material universe was created by God, who established the laws of physics to order it. Blessing comes from God. Good luck just happens at random.
  3. The material universe was created by God, who orders even apparently random events. Good luck is just a secular name for blessing.

I think the common understanding of most Christians is that some events are truly random, but other apparently random events are sent or caused by God. In fact, most responses were in the second camp. For example, if I tithe faithfully and give cheerfully, according to some, my life will be blessed in tangible, material ways. My good deeds will be rewarded with unexpected opportunities to make more money or to be more successful or to have greater influence. In this view, an unexpected promotion is from God, but a sudden illness is just a random event (or, possibly, from the devil—I didn’t want to include the devil, but, true to his nature, he butted in uninvited anyway).

This view is comfortable because with it we can absolve God of all catastrophes. Good things come form God; bad things come from nature (or the devil). God didn’t cause the Haitian earthquake; it was the result of tectonic movements deep underground. It was the result of the operation of gravity and impersonal mechanical forces. Or perhaps it was the work of the devil. Pat Robertson famously blamed the earthquake on a centuries-old curse, a pact with the devil that the Haitians made in exchange for the power to drive out the French during the slave revolt that led to Haiti’s independence.

But Christians have a problem. It is God’s omnipotence. While we hastily defend God against accusations that he causes earthquakes, hurricanes, pandemics, or other disasters, we usually aren’t quite ready to say that he is powerless to prevent them. (Some Christians have said that, and in doing so have diminished God rather than magnifying him as they ought.) If God does not cause calamity, surely he allows it, and isn’t that morally equivalent?

Here we must tread carefully, for this question is not an academic one. It is deeply personal for each one of us. Everyone has had bad things happen to them: death of a parent or child or spouse, a debilitating illness, an incapacitating accident. Such things happen to everyone and cause many to conclude that there is no God or that if there is he does not love them.We have to confess that our judgment has already been compromised.

Once we put God in the dock, we set ourselves up as his judge and agree in principle that there are moral laws that, if they apply to God, surely apply to us as well. And if God really is God, we may find ourselves having to answer to him for our sins rather than judging him for his.

It is natural to believe that bad things befall bad people and good things befall good people. It is how we would order the universe if we ourselves were in charge. We would reward the righteous and punish the wicked, and we would do so immediately. Disaster would be reserved for those who are exceptionally wicked. This was what Job’s friends believed. Repeatedly they demand that Job repent of his heinous sins. He must have been scamming single mothers or selling children into prostitution or ordering mass executions to have incurred such wrath from God. He lost his wealth, his children, and his health all in a short time, yet he claimed to have done nothing to deserve it. ‘Fess up, Job. Nobody has that much bad luck. You must have brought it on yourself.

Funny thing about Job. He never blames Satan for his troubles. The writer of Job lets his readers in on the scenes in heaven, but Job is never privy to them, and he never realizes that the Accuser has accused him of being righteous only for gain, only for God’s blessing. In Job’s mind God is the one ultimately responsible, and it is to him that he wants to present his case: the case of a righteous man unfairly singled out for punishment.

Here’s the funny thing about God. He never acknowledges Job’s case. Instead he overwhelms him with evidence of Job’s own inadequacy. In the end, Job is forced to admit that he is in no position to question God’s actions. He repents and prays for his friends who were guilty of the far greater sin of misrepresenting God.

So put me in the third camp. Despite it’s strange affinity with the naturalistic view of the first camp, I think it better represents the way the universe actually works. Nothing occurs by chance. God has his purposes in everything he causes and allows, and somehow those purposes are better than any alternative we, with our finite capacities, can imagine. I am blessed to be without a job now, and I will be blessed still more when I have a job again.

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Magical Thinking

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Arthur C. Clarke propounded that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (Clarke’s third law). Certainly, we have reached the point where our own technology seems magical to some. We can communicate instantly with almost anyone almost anywhere on the globe. We have devices that can pinpoint our position on the earth within a few dozen feet and calculate a route for us to follow to get to any destination, even taking into account heavy traffic and road construction. Computing technology has advanced so quickly that science fiction can no longer stay ahead of it. The blinking lights and toggle switches of thirty years ago feel almost as ancient now as wooden water wheels and ox-drawn plows. Computer interfaces have become increasingly simple. We will soon have interfaces that can understand a wide range of spoken languages, perhaps even translating on the fly. These technologies, which seemed far-fetched only a few decades ago, are now within our grasp.

Nevertheless, there is an important difference between technology and magic that has enabled even the most primitive cultures to easily grasp that the wonders of modern technology are man-made, not magical. Put simply it is this: technology works according to easily accessible principles of cause and effect, but magic works by performing rituals that have no discernible connection to the desired outcome.

The difference between technology and magic is the difference between scientific thinking and magical thinking. For example, suppose I give you a little box with a button on it, and I tell you that every time you press the button, your garage door will open if it is closed or close if it is open. Can you test this assertion? Certainly. You press the button and see if the garage door opens. Wow! It works! But how does it work? You try pressing the button when you’re at a friend’s house. Nothing happens. You try pressing it when you’re on a nearby hill where you can see the garage. Nothing happens. You learn with a little experimentation that you have to be within about 150 feet for the button to work. Perhaps you examine the garage and see a motor that activates when you press the button. The motor is attached to a chain, and the chain is attached to your garage door. When the motor activates, it raises or lowers the door. You can do all this and see all this knowing nothing about radio waves, yet you know that what you are seeing is not magic. It is technology. It works; it obeys simple rules; you can see some of the connections that make the system operate.

Now, suppose you give me a little box with a button on, but you tell me that pressing the button will give me healing hands so that the next person I touch will be healed of a disease. I decide to try it out, and it seems to work. Everyone I touch after pressing the button gets better. A few get better right away, but most get better after several days. Another few get better after many days or even a stay in the hospital. Still, I have good success with the button, and I begin to believe in its power. Then somebody I touch after using the button dies a few days later. Maybe there are limits to the power of the button. It doesn’t always work, but neither does your garage door opener.

So what is the difference? When I use the button, I do not see any discernible pattern in how I use it and the results I get. Sure, almost everyone gets better, but perhaps they would have gotten better anyway. In addition, I don’t see any connection between my use of the button and any other phenomenon. When you press your button, you can see a motor activate and see how it connects to the door and raises it. For me to believe in the effectiveness of my button in the face of objections requires magical thinking. Somehow, pressing the button imparts healing power to my hands. I don’t know how it works; I can’t explain it, but I know when I touch people after pressing the button they get better.

It may seem that only religious people are subject to magical thinking, but this is not so. Nearly everyone at some time or other has tried to influence events outside there control by observing some kind of ritual. People of no particular religion talk about gremlins getting into their computer or about how some good deed they have done gives them a karmic edge in a competition. Sometimes when I am driving with my daughter, and she doesn’t want to be delayed by any traffic lights, she will intone as we approach a red light, “Turn green. Turn green.” If the light turns green before we get to it, she will claim that she made it turn green. Of course, if I seriously pressed her, she would acknowledge that she can’t control traffic lights, but in more desperate circumstances, people are willing to try more desperate measures even if they doubt their efficacy.

Magical thinking doesn’t merely claim ignorance; it claims that the connection between ritual and outcome is unknowable or inexplicable. Scientific thinking may well claim ignorance, but it will also insist on devising experiments with a testable hypothesis to see just how a particular cause produces an observed effect. Magical thinking ignores or suppresses evidence; scientific thinking welcomes evidence.

We know now about diseases caused by microbes. People used to think they were caused by evil spirits. Microbes are invisible; so are evil spirits. Overcoming microbes requires expert intervention (a doctor); so does overcoming evil spirits (a priest or shaman). But microbes can be seen if we have the right instruments. They can be cultivated. We can discover what they need to survive and what wastes they produce. We can’t do any of that with evil spirits. This is not to say that spirits do not exist. It is to say that we should not expect to find physical evidence of spiritual phenomena. Someone who claims that the spiritual world does not exist because there is no physical evidence for it, is like a deaf man who refuses to believe in music because no one can tell him what color it is.

Belief in a spiritual world, however, should not make us think that we can control the physical world through ritual observances—any ritual observances. Prayer has no measurable effect on the physical world. Why should it? The purpose of prayer is not to give Christians control of the world but to give God control of the Christians. If we live in obedience to him, with our minds tuned to his Spirit, then we will transform the world. If we think that living by biblical principles is a means to worldly wealth and prosperity, then we will become conformed to the world and nothing good will come of us.

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On Selfishness

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The concept of selfishness has such a wide variety of meanings and contradictory nuances that it is almost impossible to disentangle them all. Selfishness has been lauded as a virtue and castigated as a vice. Some have even attributed selfishness to objects that have no ‘self’: most notably to genes and memes. So let’s start with a definition:

Selfishness: the pursuit of one’s own happiness.

This is a very simple definition, but I think it helps us disentangle some of the contradictions bound up in the concept of selfishness. Pascal, in a famous passage from his Penseés says,

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.

Selfishness, by this definition is both universal and indispensable. In fact, despite Christian diatribes against selfishness, the Bible says almost nothing against it. Quite the contrary. The Bible assumes that people are selfish and addresses them accordingly with appeals to their happiness and self interest. You won’t find God encouraging self sacrifice for it’s own sake. If there is no vice in selfishness, there is certainly no virtue in unselfishness. There is nothing to be gained by harsh treatment of oneself. When Peter, apparently seeking commendation, tells Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you!” Jesus replies,

“I tell you the truth, no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.”

The implication is clear. “You got a bargain, Peter. Whatever you gave up, you get back in spades, and to top it all off, you get eternal life.” In giving everything up to follow Jesus, Peter had only acted with intelligent self interest. Even Jesus pursued his own happiness, for the writer of Hebrews tells us that “for the joy set before him [Jesus] endured the cross, scorning its shame.”

If selfishness is universal and indispensable, why is it considered such a vice? Why do we teach children not to be selfish? Why do we revile the titans of industry who put their own interests ahead of their companies’?

That last question contains a clue. Hardly anyone objects to corporate executives reaping rewards for their diligent efforts as long as those rewards do not come at the expense of their employees or their customers or of taxpayers. When your pursuit of happiness infringes on mine, then I’m perfectly willing to denounce your selfishness. The idea is that in pursuing our own happiness we ought to take care not to obstruct others’ pursuit of their happiness. Selfishness becomes most selfish not when it is concerned with self but when it is unconcerned with others. This leads to a second definition.

Selfishness: indifference to others.

It’s not necessary to reconcile these two definitions; words can have more than one meaning. We just need to be clear what meaning we are using. The first definition leads us to a universal, essential characteristic of humans. But indifference to others need not be universal nor essential. In fact, taken to an extreme, indifference to others thwarts our pursuit of happiness.

Of course, some level of indifference is essential to our health and happiness. If I were really concerned about the plight of everyone in need, whether AIDS victims in Africa, child prostitutes in Southeast Asia, or poor people driven from their homes right here in America, I would be paralyzed by the magnitude of raw need. I can only be really concerned about those who come within my purview, those who are my neighbors.

This neighborly concern is not in conflict with my self interest. By showing kindness to my neighbors, I am making my neighborhood more civil, more charitable. If I have mercy on them, someone may have mercy on me when I am in need. Real kindness, however, does not spring from such enlightened self interest. It springs from genuine affection for others.

When Jesus wanted to illustrate neighborly love, he told the story of the good Samaritan. In the story, the religious “good guys” concerned with their position and reputation, do not see a fellow sufferer. They see an annoyance. The Samaritan, however, has compassion on him. When he sees the man bloodied and hurt, he hurts too. He is motivated not by self interest but by spontaneous affection for another human being. He suffers with him, envisioning himself in the same predicament. This upwelling of compassion compels him to tend the man’s wounds, take him to Urgent Care, and pay for his treatment.

Does the Samaritan act unselfishly? Yes and no. Certainly he was not indifferent to the wounded man. Love, by its very nature, is other centered. Love takes pleasure in serving the one loved. The Samaritan was not annoyed at having to stop. He was not grudging in his efforts to help. He gave freely and unconstrainedly. It was his pleasure to serve. In serving, he pursued his own happiness and no doubt found greater fulfillment than the priest and Levite who had each passed by the man and left him to die.

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