Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Soul School

There is a debate going on which takes many forms, but is based on the same old questions:

Why do we suffer?

Why does evil exist?

Why are we here?

… and the like. These questions are of a kind, and near as I can tell no answer yet has ever been perfect, nor do I think ever will be so. This is because God made billions of individual people, one by one. It seems to me that we each have an answer that is right for us, one which is unique because we are unique.

The people on one side of this debate seem to be very bitter and prone to blame God for whatever they don’t like. They blame God for the existence of evil, basically saying that they are not responsible for any wrong they do, because they believe that God set them up for a fall. This is not merely erroneous, but quite arrogant and a very dangerous attitude to hold in practice; it is in the same catageory as the man who knows he is drunk but figures if he has a problem driving, he can blame it on the bar, on the road, on the other driver, anyone but himself. Such people also fail to consider the purpose of asking the basic questions – presuming God exists, it is quite foolish to imagine that we can come up with a better defense for our behavior than he can for His position, or that we hold any standing wherein he is compelled to accept us as moral equals. The proper purpose of such questions, then, is not to try to catch God out as some kind of criminal, but to gain understanding and perspective. This, I think, was one of the key lessons of the book of Job.

Another contention that has become popular, is the notion that this life is a test. Pass it and you get great rewards, but fail it and you are in for a bad eternity. This claim and the many variations on it are quite common, but even a casual inspection shows flaws in the premise. After all, there are different kinds of tests, but generally from my experience there are two varieties. First is the type of test to determine the quality or nature of something, like a blood test for various diseases or to check blood cell counts. This kind of test results is a prescribed regimen for the subject. . The other type of test is certification. It can be initial certification, like NASA testing prospective astronauts to make sure they can withstand the rigors of training, or the aptitude tests given to high school students to determine whether they can handle the material of a college curriculum, or it can be confirmation of successful completion of a mission, like a home inspection to be sure a house is ready for move-in, or final examinations in a course. What both varieties of test have in common, is the course of action which precedes or follows the testing. Therefore, it seems to me reasonable to say not that we are going through a long test in this life on Earth, but we are in a kind of school. And that changes a lot of the rules and presumptions, once you think about it.

The starting point is God. Like it or not, the most essential reality in the universe is its Creator and Master. Not merely ‘master’ as in the guy with the keys or the most powerful being, but ‘master’ in the true sense, a being so perfect in power, authority, and essence that he rules by right. And everything besides God was made by God, and owes all to Him. It all starts there. Obviously, there are certain people who cannot accept this, and so they rebel. So, even before we get into our own condition and needs, there is rebellion against the Sovereign Lord. This is important to the resolution prepared for us by God.

Perspective is a critical factor to judgment. People see from a limited viewpoint, and for humans omniscience is never possible, although we fool ourselves many times into thinking we have the full picture. The only entity who truly enjoys omniscience is God, and that is worth thinking about. How can a being know more than one perspective? One possibility is if that being can be more than one person, so that perspectives may be tested against other perspectives, not only in time (God being eternal) but in simultaneous persons experiencing the same event from differing contexts, so that Reality exists fro God in a higher order than a human can know. That is worth its own discussion, but for here it seemed to me worth its mention as part of the framework.

So, for humans the goal seems to be for us to learn to love and do goodness. Yet we already know that freedom to choose means that some will choose to rebel. And that rebellion leads to great evil and suffering, indeed no better than that can come of it where God is rejected, as all goodness comes from Him. How then, some ask, can God allow suffering in this way? Why is evil allowed to happen, and why is its punishment deferred and the good allowed to be harmed? One way to consider this, is the fact that humans often learn through comparison. We know good music because we hear sounds we do not like, we know good health because we know illness, and so on. Consequently, we learn to appreciate good in part because we see what evil is and does, and good people do not wish to advance evil. Also, it is important to learn another key truth, one which many people do not want to be so – we all do evil, to some degree. Evil is that quality which not only wants to harm someone, but it can also be that selfishness that treats another person as a thing. Jesus taught about a rich man who went to hell. What is interesting is, we never heard that this rich man was dishonest or violent or failed to go to temple, or any of those things. The sole offense of this man, was that he saw someone in need and chose not to help. The sin was in choosing to make that beggar an object rather than a person, and in so doing rebel against God’s command that we love one another, which shows up over and over again in the Bible and in every true faith. By ‘true faith’, I mean to say that although I am a Christian and believe Christ’s Gospel is the true gift of God and the Salvation of the World, I agree with C.S. Lewis that myths are often echoes of God’s truth, so that what is true in Christianity may also show up in different places – God is not silent about hope and mercy, so we should not be surprised if there is truth in surprising places.

Doing good is hard. Not sinning is hard. Focusing on God’s will instead of my own is hard. I don’t know that I can do any of the three for more than a few minutes, and if I think I have, I have just committed the sin of pride, don’t you know! It is extraordinarily easy to sin, to do what we know is wrong, even when we very much want to do the right thing. Keep that in mind, it’s important. We all sin, even when we try hard to be good. We all love goodness and we al teach goodness to our children, yet it remains a hard thing to do. I don’t mean the easy business of being nice to folks and showing them respect, though enough people have a hard time with that, I mean going out of our way to help someone, doing the right thing when it costs us something.

Life is a university, and we are each on our own schedule. What’s right for one person may be very different from what is right for someone else in terms of goals and specific skills, but we all live by a code which commands us to think, speak, and act by a standard we cannot meet all the time. Before you claim that such a regimen is cruel, consider that any skill is always taught as never-ending improvement. Artists always seek something better, engineers people seek more efficiency, business people seek ever-more effective solutions, scientists always seek deeper comprehension, and so on. We all pursue prefection, even if we touch it so rarely. Should we be so surprised to learn, that God wants us to learn to be more and more perfect? Yet as I said, we all fail the mark, and there are three reasons for that. First, if you have ever known someone who seemed perfect, you may notice that they are very different from regular people. If you like golfing with the guys, you enjoy the sense that you are all peers. One guy may be a great driver but his putting is off, while each of the others has his own strengths and flaws. But if one of the guys in your foursome is Tiger Woods, then as good as he is, he may have a hard time fitting in. The idea is not that God holds us down to keep us from getting where we want to be, but knowing that we will fail, God helps us remember that we are all human, none of us is Superman. Second, we all need God. Just as we all must die one day, we all sin and cannot be everything all in ourselves. Even Jesus took care to have His disciples take part in some of His miracles (like the feeding of the 5,000, and even Peter was able to walk on water when Jesus did it); we are family, one with each other, and no man can truly say he needs no one else. Third, it is not right to say that knowing we would do evil, God created evil in order to make men sin. Rather, it is true to say that God chose to make men free, and knowing that men would use that freedom to choose evil in various times and places, God not only chose to forgive men their sins, but also to use that evil for good purposes. We do not always see this, but it is true nevertheless. When we see someone suffer, for instance, it moves our heart to act in compassion, which is good. When we see injustice, we are moved to create justice. When we see sickness, we are moved to help healing. In our arrogance, some blame God for the evil done, not realizing that evil is temporary, and one day will be destroyed. Even death is only real for a little while, measured against the eternal life God grants us. But because God is eterrnal, the things of God are also eternal, and no good thing is ever lost forever, but only set aside until its time. So it is eventually a different reality which comes to be; one where every bad and foul thing is undone, but only every good thing remains. Then we are able to appreciate all good things without cost or compromise, and all that is right will be full advanced. Our lives seek that goal.

Is there a test? Yes, there are many of them, as is always the case in school. But just as a good school can be a wonderful place for a child, so too the education of a soul does not need to be hard or cold, and the purpose of these tests is not to frighten us or browbeat us, but to help us see how far we have come, and to choose our next stage. And this, if I may be so bold, is where the Commission of Christ comes into the matter.

Jesus Christ is the Son of God, who came to earth as a man, to live among us as one of us. This already sets Christ apart from so many religions based on a distant and impersonal god. Yet Jesus did more; he was entitled to wealth, influence, and power, yet He lived as a poor itinerant preacher, who died after being wrongfully accused of sedition by men who knew He was innocent. Jesus could have escaped this fate, but accepted it in order to do the will of God, that He should die for the sins of the world. This claim is admittedly controversial, but in this place I will not elaborate; I simply state what I know to be absolute truth. As a result, God acted as a human in order to save humans from their chosen path of evil, and knowing this salvation has been made for us is essential to understanding our identity and purpose. For someone living in this world, knowing that God loved us enough to live as one of us and die for what we did in hatred of Him is powerful, radical information. If life is a school, well, Christians are kind of the Student Council. We are charged with reporting who God is, what He wants for us, and why. And like any Student Council, we are a mix of people who do a good job, people who get a big head about the title, and all kinds of others. We are learning just like anyone else, in fact we may not be the best students and we are not really the teachers, unless in some rare case God so uses us, which He does with anyone whose work pleases Him.

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