Is God Perfect or Not?

Galton's view of social structure in the UK
Galton’s view of social structure in the UK (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ever since I was young enough to hear and to understand, I have been told that God is perfect. God can do no wrong. God does not make mistakes. God is …omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient. The lessons of God’s perfection have been deeply engrained in my soul.

And yet, the more I listen to study phenomena like racism, homophobia, sexism, anti-Semitism, and other “isms,” the more I wonder about my theology.  Is God perfect or do we have it all wrong?

I have been squirming with this question for a while, but when an Indian-American, Nina Davuluri, won the Miss America title a couple of weeks ago, the conversation over her being too dark gave me pause. There were some in America who were angry that she, being of Indian descent had won, but there were people who said that in India, she never could have won “because she is too dark.” Apparently, the quest to have light skin to white skin is an obsession in India, with young women participating in pageants taking medications to alter their skin color – i.e., to make it lighter. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/16/miss-america-nina-skin-color_n_3935348.html)

Historically, people have wanted to be white, in this country and in others. People have tried to pray their gayness away.  Being a female has been a hindrance and not a help, too often, in the workplace.  And yet, God made all of these …untouchables, …these undesirables. Could it be that God isn’t so perfect? Could it be that not only is it not true that God doesn’t make mistakes, but that God apparently has made a lot of mistakes?

If all of these groups of people – blacks, browns, women, gays, lesbians, females – are a problem, why in the world did God create them?

There is something extremely sad about any group of people trying to deny and change themselves to fit into image of a group of people who have decided who is worthy and acceptable and who is not. The European standard of beauty has been internalized by people all over the world. Little girls in Africa carry around white baby dolls, many of them.  Studies have been conducted that show that little children in this nation think that black and brown people are not pretty and not as intelligent as are white people. Homosexual people are presumed to be morally inferior to straight people.

What in the world was God thinking when He/She created people who were not white, Protestant  males?

In the eugenics movement, which came into being largely on the efforts of Charles Benedict Davenport in the 1890s, there was a quest to create the “perfect” person. That person was white, but not any old kind of white. To be desirable, one needed to have Nordic features – blonde hair, blue eyes. Dr. Davenport, who was a Harvard-trained biologist, influenced a lot of people, including one Francis Galton. It was Galton who coined the term “eugenics,” and he defined that as “the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally.” (Eyes Right: Challenging the Right Wing Backlash, . 213)

The eugenics movement was fascinating and troubling, all at once; the purpose of this article is not to go into it in-depth – but the point is that a whole cadre of very intelligent men (!!) constructed hypotheses which upheld and justified white supremacy …and their work was so titillating that the Nazis used it to justify and construct their own system of racism which resulted in the extermination of millions of Jews.

What, then? Did God mess up when God didn’t create everyone with Nordic features? Did God commission people to “improve upon” what God had created? If that’s the case, is God perfect? Can the notion of God’s perfection be trusted?

Years ago, I was chastised by a preacher whom I respected deeply because I would not say, and could not say, that only Christians would be saved. It was inconceivable to me that God would create a whole world full of different people who practiced different religions, and condemn them all to hell. That notion of God did not fit with my notion of a loving and inclusive God. Jesus was the Christian way, the Christian mediator, so to speak, between God and humans. Other religions had their mediators, but all of them, I argued, were valid. There was no way that God was that …small, that provincial, that…narrow-minded. The perfection of God did not mean to me that God intended for everyone to be the same. In fact, because of God’s omniscience, had that been what God had wanted, God would surely have done it!

I was eliminated from the ministerial student group after my talk with that pastor.

Stung and stunned, I asked God why He/She hadn’t intervened on my behalf. Like the psalmists demanding an answer, I asked God to speak up and tell me why He/She had let me be skewered as I defended the basic goodness of God and of God’s intentions.

Of course, God was silent.

But every now and then, the question of God’s perfection comes up. When babies are born deformed or sick, does that mean God was not and is not perfect? When people have addictive personalities, does that mean God is not perfect?  When little boys grow up to be serial killers, does that mean something happened in the womb that made that child’s brain program him into being a murderer? When a child gets a debilitating disease, like Michael Murphy Odone (“Lorenzo’s Oil), caused by a malfunctioning of his ability to metabolize fats, does that mean that God put a wrong gene in the wrong place when the child was growing in the womb?

Is God perfect or not? Are people of color, Jews, gays and Lesbians….mistakes?  If we are to listen to the chatter of people who are always putting a group of people down because of who they are, we might begin to question God’s creative genius, mightn’t we?

A candid observation …

 

 

What Does the Bible Say, Really?

There are some things we just don’t think about.

Susan Thistlewaite, Chicago Theological Seminary professor, author and scholar, gives some sobering information in her latest book, Occupy the Bible. She says that we ought to read the Bible from the perspective of the homeless, the hungry, the economically stressed.

It was from their perspective that Jesus formed his ministry, she says …and the Bible says.

In a workshop she gave, she said, “Student debt is approaching one trillion dollars. That’s more than credit card debt and if the trend continues, in a few years, student debt will be higher than the national debt. We need to read the Bible from that perspective.”

Students are stressed out and depressed. They have gone to school and gotten degrees, only to find that they are not able to get work, or enough money to pay their student loans.”Students are stressed out and depressed,” Thistlewaite said. “Some are committing suicide.”

There are a lot of reasons for the economic state of this nation, but greed is a big one, posits Thistlewaite. Greed has led banks and other financial institutions, including those which dole out student loans, to go haywire, thinking not about the people who are getting the loans they are giving out but instead by the profit they will make off people who are really trying to make an honest living.

Jesus was a revolutionary, primarily because he challenged the Roman government. He didn’t get into trouble because he taught people to love; he got in trouble because he challenged the status quo. He got into trouble because he taught people that the kingdom in which they should seek comfort was the heavenly kingdom, where there was fairness and equality amongst people,  not the earthly kingdom, headed by the Romans, which led people into economic despair and support economic inequality.

“Theology begins where pain is,” says Thistlewaite. And clearly, there is pain amongst the people who are working and still cannot make ends meet. That group includes students, but also the so-called “working poor,” who, in spite of working sometimes two and three jobs, are still struggling to keep their heads above water. The economic state of our nation is slowly wiping out the middle class, and, observes Thistlewaite, there can be no democracy without a middle class.

Our economic dilemma is made all the worse as the issue is argued using the Bible as justification for both liberal and conservative positions. Thistlewaite says that “the Right thinks the Bible supports free market capitalism.” The Left, conversely, uses the Bible to support an economy which supports equal distribution of wealth. Parables, like found in the Book of Matthew 25:14-30, where a wealthy landowner gave three different “slaves” (translated from the Greek “doulos”) rewarded the two who multiplied money given to them, and cast out the one who hid the money given to him, invite two different interpretations, one from the Left, one from the Right. Who, in that parable and others, is doing the will of God, asks Thistlewaite.

One Bible. Two desperately different interpretations …and the odd men out are the struggling, working poor.

We don’t want to think about the state of our economy or what God really demands. It is totally inconceivable to me that anyone would think that God supports poverty or the abject and real suffering that is endured by the working poor, just as it is inconceivable to me that a good God would support racism or sexism or militarism. I grew up believing that a good God wanted all people to be taken care of, that God wanted economic and social justice for all people. Is that naive?

Neither the Hebrew Scriptures nor the New Testament, naiveté notwithstanding, seem to support misery, with a very few people being very comfortable at the expense of many poor people suffering. People got into big trouble with God in the Bible for not being hospitable, not taking care of widows and the poor. God didn’t change, did He/She?

There are some things we don’t want to think about it, but we need to. Bottom line, there’s too much suffering caused by economic distress, in this, the wealthiest nation in the world.

A candid observation …

Visit Thistlewaite’s website at http://www.occupythebible.org

Leaving the Cocoon

Sometimes, you have to be snatched out of your comfort zone in order to move into the next phase of your life.

I have written about myself being reclusive, comfortably snug in a cocoon of my own making. I have known for a while that I needed to come of out the cocoon, but I have been reluctant to do so. So, God snatched me out.

The will of God, I believe, is for us all to be all He/She created us to be. The recent economic crisis has resulted in not a few people realizing, or discovering, parts of themselves that they didn’t know existed. Entrepreneurs have been born out of despair and panic.

God must be smiling.

There is something about being out of a cocoon that is radically liberating. Scary …but liberating…because being out of one’s comfort zone and thrown off the cliff, so to speak, and being told to fly is a tipping point. You either fly, flapping the wings you didn’t know you had …or you crash and burn.

In trying to figure out how to flap the wings you didn’t even realize you had, you lose the time you had to concentrate on feeling afraid or angry because of your situation. You have too much work to do. To worry or give too much time to what caused you to be “out there” is to pull valuable time away from learning how to discover and then use the wings you always had.

I think God must rejoice at times like these. God must smile and say, “finally.” So many of us remain closed up in our cocoons and never get to experience the freedom that comes when one is out of it, so when some of us break free, or, as in my case, are snatched out, God surely must smile.

The late Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote an amazing, book called God In Search of Man.  In it, he writes that “self-deception is the chief source of corruption in religious thinking, more deadly than error.” He also writes that “religion is liable to distortion from without and to corruption from within …Faith, in its zeal, tends to become bigotry.”

It occurs to me that many of us commit bigotry against ourselves, blaming religion and religious teaching for the same.  We discriminate against ourselves and hold ourselves back because of our lack of faith in ourselves and in God, who desires that we fly.  When we commit bigotry against ourselves, we are more likely to feel bigotry from others because we have created a spiritual culture in which bigotry, whether self-imposed or from the outside, can and does flourish.

Staying in a safe place, in a cocoon, is a petri dish in which self-deceptive words, feelings and attitudes multiply and too many of us do not realize how we are blocking the will of God, which is that all of us would be free.

Religious doctrine and political ideology have been blamed for a lot of the non-movement of human beings, but the fact is that many of us have prevented ourselves from moving. We don’t dare.  We would rather be holed up in an old cocoon than to burst out of it, “following our bliss,” as Joseph Campbell advises us all to do. And in not following our bliss, too many of remain dolefully unhappy and unfulfilled in these very few days we are allotted on earth.

If being in relationship with God is supposed to be liberating, which I believe it is, then many of us “cocoon dwellers” miss it., Richard Rohr writes, “… but in most of history the priestly tradition has been in control and defined religion. “Leviticus and Numbers” usually trump any real exoduses from slavery to freedom.” That phrase struck me, as I realize many of us enslave ourselves, in spite of deep religious beliefs. We humans all need a personal Exodus experience, and Rohr writes that it is as much an internal as an external journey. That’s what “liberation theology” is basically about…but too many of us don’t understand.

I didn’t understand, and so God snatched me out of my cocoon. I was so comfortable there;  I yearn for it at times …but I am kind of liking this feeling of wings that are slowly drying out and spreading. I am beginning to live my way into a new way of thinking. Wings are spreading, slowly …

It’s better than the cocoon.

A candid observation …

The Power of Re-Calculating

I love my GPS; I use it whenever I am going to a new place and it is extremely funny when I don’t follow directions and it is as if the GPS sighs and murmurs to itself because it has to recalculate a new route. You know. create a new normal.

I have come to understand that “new normals” are a part of  life, even if we do not like them. I read Iyanla Vanzant‘s book, Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get through What you’re Going Through,” and marveled at how many times there has been a “recalculation” in her life and how many times her “normal” has changed.  Another book of hers, The Value in the Valley speaks of the place we find ourselves before we climb up and out of our valleys into a new space…but what is clear is that once in a valley, if we use the valley experience correctly, our lives, upon emerging, will be different. Our inner beings, our personalities, our spirits, will have “recalculated” because our valley experience is meant to be a place where old experiences and thinking patterns and even old relationships are meant to be discarded. There is a better way to get to where we need to be, and it is the valley that we begin to realize that.  We don’t willingly go into valleys. Life takes us there, over and over. It might be a diagnosis of cancer, a death in the family, a divorce, betrayal by a friend, being laid off or being fired …Stuff happens, and when it does, it seems to take us to valleys that we do not want to be in.

So recalculating is always going on in our lives.

I hear that Tony Robbins said that when he had valley experiences in his life, the way he got through them was to pour positive energy – and a lot of it – into work or projects that he believed in.  It is while we are in a valley that we don’t want to do anything – not eat, not read, not even enjoy the beauty of a new day – but when we succumb to the tendency to wallow in the valley, we waste the experience. It is too valuable an experience to be wasted.

Valley experiences are meant to strengthen and encourage us. I have always taught my students the words of Psalm 30: “Weeping endures for a night, but joy comes in the morning!” but have added my own two cents’ worth …”and morning always comes!”  No matter how dark and long the night, morning will push through. The goal should be, while we are in a valley, to make sure than when morning comes, we are not the same as we were when dark descended.  It seems that our spirits cry out to us to let them (our spirits) do their work, to let them reshape, reform, retry, recalculate – so that we can live lives that are optimally meaningful for us.

That’s what our spirits yearn to do, I think.

My spirit is in recalculate mode. I think I’m going to let her do her work.

A candid observation …

 

 

When Grace Strikes us

Every once in a while, we as humans find ourselves in a mess of our own making.

It is easy to cry out to God when one is in a situation caused by someone else, but when you have put yourself in a mess, it feels rather foolhardy to cry out, or even to cry.

In a split second, humans too often make decisions that forever alter the rest of their lives. How many of us have done that, and then said, “Geez. If I had only …” But by then it’s too late. Your mess is made; your life is changed.

Though we feel stupid (or at least I do) calling out to God at those moments, it is at those moments that we experience the merciful presence of God. God shows up while we are writhing in our agony angst. Paul Tillich says that it is at those times that grace shows up; specifically, he says, “grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged.” (from The Courage to Be, second edition, p. xxii).

It is in those moments that we are challenged to accept God’s acceptance of us. That’s a good thing and more: it’s a necessary thing because when we are in messes of our own making, we find it hard to accept ourselves. Moments of despair challenge us and encourage us to reach for and look for this God who accepts us in spite of our bad moves and bad decisions.

If we are unable to feel the grace of God strike us when we are down, we run the danger of turning away from God …who is ever turning toward us. Turning away from God is the worst thing we can do ever, but especially when we are in self-flagellation mode.  We beat ourselves up far worse than God ever has or ever will.

So, while I sit in this mess I have made, I am inclining my face and spirit toward God, and am comforted that God is inclining His/Her ear and spirit toward me. I am not alone. For the first time in three weeks, I am not shaking. I am beginning to eat. Grace, that which has struck me and has stayed with me through this valley, has commanded me to eat – not only food, but the drops of mercy which grace sends. I have found that I need grace to strengthen me.

Trouble …don’t last alway…the old spiritual says, and that is true.  In the midst of trouble there is always a lesson, a vital lesson that we needed to know.  I am not quite sure why some of us have to fall into dark valleys to get the lessons God wants for us, but the up side of down situations is that in the valley, God is there, with a fresh supply of grace.

That’s a real comforting …candid observation.