Tuesday, January 23, 2007

the essence of Christianity

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In a Jewish book I'm reading, written by the wife of a great rabbi, I came across the following story which illustrates the essence of Christianity, or Judaism, or even that of any spiritual system that values human life:
Some years ago, I read a brief news item in The New York Times about an Olympics for Special Children in Seattle, Washington. It was a small blurb, innocuously placed, an I would probably have missed it had my daughter not pointed it out to me. The story was about disabled children who competed in a race. When the whistle sounded, they started to run. Suddenly, one of the young boys fell, skinned his knee, and began to cry. When the others heard his cry, they stopped in their tracks, turned around, and went to his aid. One little girl, who had Down Syndrome, bent down, kissed his knee and said, "here, this will make it feel better." The children helped the boy to his feet, linked hands, and ever so slowly, they all walked as one to the finish line.*
*Jungries, Esther. Life Is A Test. Brooklyn: Shaar Press, 2006. 15

Why is this the essence of Christianity or Judaism? Or any other religious systems that place a high value on human life? Because it shows that "winning" is a hollow achievement, if we ignore the pain and suffering that surround each and everyone of us. An excellent example of this is the recent Pixar movie Cars, where a bright red young NASCAR stock car, "Lightning McQueen," learns the same sort of lesson.

It's not what you achieve, it's who you help that counts.

<>< TM

P.S. According to my research, the event told by Jungries actually happened in Spokane, not Seattle, and only one or two athletes helped the guy who fell, not everyone. (source: http://www.snopes.com/glurge/special.htm) However, even if it were only one person who helped the fallen athlete, the point is still valid.

P.S.S. Cool video Clip of Rascal Flat's performing "Life is a Highway" as featured in the movie "Cars" here.


TK said...

I think the story, in whichever incarnation, is a good and important one. However, I think you do something of a disservice to those who are without faith (such as myself), by assuming that only those who believe would be the ones concerned with helping the fallen child.

I understand that you are a profoundly religious man, and I have no problem with that. But I think that sometimes we (believers and nonbelievers alike) choose stories such as this one as evidence of why our path is better than the other. Atheists are equally at risk when they frequently describe people of faith as mindless automatons, or say that religion is a crutch. The subject is too complex for such simplifications.

The discussions of right or wrong, good and evil, God or no God, are all fascinating and important discussions. But to use this example of disabled children, I feel, somewhat disingenuous. Not to mention it implies that they are of a certain faith, which is there is no evidence of.

I apologize if this came out as a criticism - it was not meant to be, merely a bit of discourse. I stumbled upon your site today and promptly devoured a good portion of it. It's excellent stuff.


theodicy said...

Hi TK,

I'm glad you are enjoying the THEODICY blog! I hope you find many interesting and challenging ideas in my little slice of cyberspace.

If I may, I would like to help correct a misperception that you have regarding the story of the disabled children. You wrote:

"...I think you do something of a disservice to those who are without faith (such as myself), by assuming that only those who believe would be the ones concerned with helping the fallen child."

The assumption you claim I'm guilty is never made, nor is it even the point of the post. Though I find it quite fascinating that you believe I'm assuming that! Such a comment speaks more to your belief system (or lack thereof) than it does to mine!

Assume, for the sake of argument, that the children in the story were the kids of Richard Dawkins and Daniel C. Dennett. Even if that were the case, the story still serves as an excellent illustration of an idea clearly expressed by the likes of Jesus, Buddha, the Prophets, and even Krishna: that idea being that we find ultimate meaning and purpose in this life in our efforts to mitigate the suffering of others. And in the case of Jesus, the Prophets and Krishna; such actions have eternal significance and will be ultimately rewarded in the afterlife. Clearly, it is impossible for an atheist to hold or even express such a viewpoint comparable to that, for to do so would be to admit to an afterlife and divine judgment.

In other words, I'm using this story (as does Rebbetizin Esther Jungries) as a parable. No faith is implied or suggested on the part of the participants in the story, we are only commenting on their actions and noting their similarity to those actions proscribed in Christian and Hebrew writings, nothing more. The children could all be practitioners of Wicca, but the illustration still stands.

But like I said, I find it very interesting that you immediately jumped to the conclusion that I was
projecting "faith" upon the motives of the disabled children! Why do such a thing when nothing like that is present in the grammar or wording of the article? Now you have me wondering about your motives!

But in the course of your misperception, you unintentionally bring about a very interesting point: are the belief systems of those who are religious (those who have some sort of "faith") superior to those who are not religious?

To put the matter more concretely, are the beliefs, ethics and practices of Jesus, the Prophets, Buddha, and Krisha superior to those beliefs and practices of Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, and Dawkins, those who's only "faith" is that in the supremacy of man?

I think we could even test this empirically, by evaluating the actions and effects of men of faith in comparison to that of those of no faith and determine which have had the greater net effect for good (or evil) throughout world history.

It's not that people of no faith are incapable of good deeds, it just that they lack any metaphysical justification (obviously) for doing good. At best, it could be said doing good just feels good. But what if doing evil feels good? What then? (This is no small matter, for sometimes an evil act does feel good!) Where there's no religion, there's no ultimate authority for judgment, since every man is their own god.

But more importantly, why does a person of admittedly "no faith" think it's so important that those of us with faith consider your actions and motives to be "good"? Why would you care? Other than whatever PR value it has, such a judgment is ultimately meaningless, by your own criteria.

So I ask: why do you care what people of faith think of you and your motives? Why does it matter how we evaluate them? I'm quite interested in knowing the answer. I'm not intested only because of your comments here, but because I have noticed this same desire on the part of other people of no faith as well, even Richard Dawkins. There is a very intentional and obvious desire to have others, even those of faith, to view people of no faith in the highest regard! Why be so concerned about this?

{Consider this to be an "open" question, one that anyone of any faith, or no faith at all, is welcome to answer!)

But for sake of honesty let me say this: I certainly care very much about what people of no faith think of me and this blog...and I'm very thankful you have taken the time to express your views. The reason I'm concerned about this is that I hope to challenge people's ideas, whether they be Christians, atheists, pagans or whatever, and to continue to dialog with them.

Also, for the sake of honesty, let me state that I firmly believe that there are systems of belief, or "worldviews" that are far superior to others in terms of their net benefits and potential for good. And I truly believe, beyond any shadow of doubt, that the Christian worldview, when rightly expressed through the teachings of Jesus and Paul, is far superior to any other system of belief (or no belief) that exists or has ever existed. If I didn't believe that, I would be the greatest of hypocrites.

<>< TM

TK said...

Well. There's a little bit of miscommunication, and probably a little bit of fundamental philosophical difference at play here. The miscommunication is my fault, I admit. I see that you meant it as a parable, and it serves as an adequate one. But you must admit, titling the post "The Essence of Christianity" would inevitably cause someone like me to rise to the occasion.

So here goes. I suppose my thinking was more along the lines of this: why, when faced with a story such as the one in question, do you first think about how it serves as a parable in the first place? And I think here in lies one of the aforementioned philosophical differences - I see it as a parable for humanity, you see it as one for belief. You are correct, their actions are similar to those found in Christian and Hebrew writings. However, they are also similar to the lessons I learned from my father, who is also an atheist.

Argh. I'm trying not to do that. I don't mean for this to be a debate about atheism vs. religion, because that's not my intent. I try not to be one of those rabid atheists whose goal is to convert believers, because frankly, I'm a pretty live and let live kind of guy. So long as beliefs don't lead to suffering. Anyway, I thought it, I wrote it, I'll leave it in.

That aside. I will retract my statement about your stating the motives of the children are based on religion. What I would contest is the concept of why we do good things. Specifically, by stating that such actions have "eternal significance" and will be rewarded in the afterlife... doesn't that take away from the act itself, or from the motivation of the person doing it? Perhaps this is another fork in the road for us, but I prefer to think that people do good things because it is, as you said, the right thing to do, not because they will reap rewards from it.

I'm paraphrasing, and perhaps simplifying, to a point. But I don't think that one has to subscribe to a particular belief system to do the right thing - I've developed a fairly comprehensive system of beliefs in terms of right and wrong, and I believe that I've certainly done far more good than harm in my life. Am I the exception and not the rule?

Well, I suppose that brings us to the next point - can your belief system beat up my belief system? Empirical analysis of this question would truly be fascinating, but I think we would ultimately come to a dead end. Because just as you are correct in saying that sometimes, to the nonbeliever, doing evil might feel good, there are uncountable instances of people of faith doing terrible things (and occasionally on a massive scale), and what's worse, sometimes doing so in the name of that belief. I know that's the easy, and perhaps cheap, answer to your point, but I think it's a valid one nonetheless.

Finally, why do I think it's important that a person of faith thinks what I do is good? Well, it does and it doesn't. I'm not being flippant - I honestly don't care what someone believes. I have no issue with people of religion. Live and let live, as I said. But just as I care what my fellow atheist thinks of me, it makes sense for me to care what you think.

The truth is, I DO view people of faith, when they are true and consistent and honest about it, in very high regard. Why shouldn't I? It is not an easy road in this world to be true to your beliefs, and to not compromise them. It's easy being an Atheist, I will freely admit it. In fact, it's one of the inherent problems with it, in that people feel as if it gives them carte blanche to do nothing with their lives. I take a more positive approach to the world in general, and therefore I find myself doing what is conventionally thought of as "the right thing" more often than not. Sure, I probably drink too much, and swear too much, but other than that, I'd like to think I'm a good person. And I suppose it's important that others, regardless of beliefs or lack thereof, to think that of me to. Though I think that is more a aspect of simply being human than a belief. We all want confirmation that we are doing the right thing, and sometimes that confirmation comes from what you believe, sometimes it comes from your peers, sometimes it comes from within.

Anyway, of course you believe your system of belief is superior. If you didn't, you'd be wasting your time, and frankly, mine as well.

Here's my closing question, which - yikes! - could lead to a whole other debate. Given that we both seem to believe strongly in a certain system, and freely admit that we think our respective system is superior (I won't say superior - I'll say "right")... the question is, do you feel it's important for people to share that belief? Would you rather I shared them? I'd be interested to hear the answer.

Anyway. Thanks for responding. I apologize for being so long-winded - I have a problem with run-on sentences and general garrulousness. It's an interesting debate, and I will continue to follow your site. You're welcome to visit mine, though I will warn you that it's a lot less... civilized... than yours, or than my discourse here is. And like I said - I swear a lot.

Take care,

theodicy said...


Thank you so much for your long and thoughtful reply. You are an honest athiest, and for that you deserve my respect.

Too often, both amongst believers and non-believers, we become quite dogmatic in our viewpoints, thinking those who do not share them are some sort of sub-human wretch. It is a good thing, a very good thing, when those who have somewhat opposing viewpoints can discuss them without resorting to attacks of character and motives.

Let me say this, and it might be suprising: I believe that the atheist position of neutrality regarding the supernatural is a very, very wise one...unless you are convinced that there is some grain of truth to a supernatural, spiritual point of view. If you have not experienced anything that would lead you to believe that there is some sort of higher power in the universe, then it's best to be an atheist.

Why do I say this? Because I was once one myself.

You are correct to bring up the many attrocites that people of faith done "in the name of God." Such actions are to be condemned, and not just by non-believers.

But here's the rub (as you yourself alude to): a Christian has a certain universally agreed-to "code of conduct" in the form of the Bible. Anyone, of any belief system, can check a Christian's actions and attitudes to that of the Biblical texts and see if they are living up to standards. And this is a good thing!

But the atheist, as you point out, has no standards of any kind, other than what they themselves wish to incorporate into their lifestyle. And like I said previously, every atheist is their own god. The only real restrictive force are the laws and rules in the place where they live, which again is a good thing.

When the famous philosopher Freidrich Nietzsche declared that "God is dead" he almost immediately realized the horrible consquences that could occur if that were take to be literally true! (He meant it in a literal sense, but one senses that Nietzsche was hoping people would be cautious in their enthusiasm about this!). Though no friend to religious folks, he understood that even if religion is a lie, it is a very useful one. He famously created an ethic that promotes a strong, healthy life and self-image, in constrast to the self-flagellation that he saw in Christian morality.

The funny thing is that it can be shown that the God of the Bible is as pro-life as Nietzsche himself, perhaps even much more so; but that through some bizzare twists in the theology of the Christian faith (mainly through Catholicism) focus was given far too much on self-denial as a means of human perfection, something which I think Nietzshe rightly criticizes.

Anyway, there's a lot to complain about in terms of Christianity and the way it "markets" itself, be it either Catholic or Protestant. There is a lot of garbage in contemporary American Christianity, in terms of goofy beliefs that God/Jesus never intended. Now is not the time for me to go into polemic about all that, but to suffice to say that there is a Christian culture in the United States that bears little resemblence to the Christianity of the Bible.

But I think I now understand your point much better: a person can be "good" without God. Personally, I think it's entirely possible, but still there is a problem of what we should use as a criterea for goodness. This isn't a big problem, but a problem none-the-less. You are correct in assuming that people of faith do not give people of non-faith enough credit for this.


I don't believe a person can rightly achieve their full potential in this life without a relationship with God. (Not just a belief, but a relationshp...this point is crucial.) The reason why is simple: God, more so than any human being on this planet, greatly desires people to be good, and goes so far as to even supernaturally empower a person to achieve goodness beyond that which they are capable without the relationship.

However, since God respects a person's ability to make choices-- again far beyond that tolerance which you'll find in any human being--he will NOT force this empowerment upon you, and will give you all the space you need to pursue whatever course of action you like in this life.

I have a lot more to say about this, so instead of writing in this comments section, I'm going to create a new post in my blog dedicated to your challenge: why would I want people to share in my belief system! So be on the lookout for this article in about a week or so.

Also, I'm going to something written by a former atheist about his own road to faith in God. Look for that to be posted in the next couple of days.

Thanks so much for writing TK...please continue to stay in touch, and feel free to comment on anything else you find troubling or praise-worthy on this site!

<>< TM