"I'm what the world considers to be a phenomenally successful man. And I've failed much more than I've succeeded. And each time I fail, I get my people together, and I say, "Where are we going?" And it starts to get better." - Calvin Trager
My brother, Ian, has caught the blog infection and has started one of his own. He calls it "A Good World?" Here's why:
So why ‘A Good World?’ My brother, Mike, has a blog named after a quote from C. S. Lewis ("Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.") and I felt that to complete the family circle, naming my blog after a quote from Bertrand Russell seemed a good fit. As for the specific quote, it is the longer version of what an English Teacher in my high school had emblazoned on his classroom wall, towering over us in black and white like some Bauhaus version of Times Square.
The quote comes from a talk that Bertrand Russell gave in 1927 at Battersea Town Hall, and subsequently became the title essay of ‘Why I am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects’. The quote is the concluding sentence of the talk and follows a consideration of a number of logical arguments about the existence of God: “Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes.” I agree with this sentiment, although obviously having one’s belief in God motivated by fear does not logically prove that God doesn’t exist.
My first thought is that if Ian's English teacher had a quote from the Gospel of Matthew on his classroom wall there probably would have been a lawsuit ... but a quote from Bertrand Russell that essentially calls religion the refuge of the insecure and terrified is somehow OK. I could go into a rant here about how ideas should not be discriminated against because they are religiously-based or connected ... but I won't.
My second thought was to answer this in a comment on Ian's blog. My next was to just wait until I saw him this weekend. But then I thought the real fun would be to answer him in mine (Hi, Ian) ... and that might lead others to read his blog, which is predictably quite intelligent, quick-witted and entertaining (and that's only after three posts!).
It's tough to answer this without seeming knee-jerk defensive. To be fair, I think Russell has a point. I think religion owes a great deal of its development to the tendencies he outlines. No one wants to be alone in the universe (even the people I know who believe they are aren't particularly overjoyed at the prospect). Most people like a sense of security and meaning in their lives. Religion conveniently can provide those things.
And for many people, I think that's what religion is. And I don't think that's a bad thing. Hey, life is tough ... and if I experience it as tough sometimes, then imagine how the 95% of the world's population with lives tougher than mine feel. There is kind of a Lennonesque "whatever gets you through the night" about it that's not all that bad.
But as Ian points out, just because the belief in God can be motivated by fear doesn't mean that God doesn't exist. It also doesn't mean that's the only thing that can motivate that belief.
I hadn't thought about that Russell quote in a long time. I had to read Why I am Not a Christianin my high school philosophy class, and that's probably the last time I considered it. But I've thought of the converse -- why am I a Christian -- quite a bit. I've had students go through crises of faith and I've gone through them myself. It's really an excellent question.
I am a Christian not because I have an absolute 100% belief in God. I am a Christian not because I have an absolute 100% belief in anything! I think certitude is a pretty dangerous thing ... it tends to carve a path in the opposite direction from humility -- the lack of which tends to be one of our larger problems.
I am a Christian because I believe it is possible, even probable, that God exists -- and given that I am a Christian because I choose to be one. Because I have experiences in my life that perhaps others could explain other ways (none more probably than God's existence, IMO) but that I choose to explain as God. I am a Christian because I am moved to transcendence by the depth of beauty I see and experience all around me, a depth of beauty that seems to have a wisdom to it.
I am a Christian because the people in the world I have met and whom I have read and heard who are not the wisest, most centered, most insightful -- the people I most want to be like and consider the highest development of human being I know -- are believers in God and, often, followers of Christ.
I am a Christian, I choose to be a Christian because in the times in my life when I didn't believe in God and didn't follow Christ I was sure one selfish sonofabitch. I choose to be a Christian because I know following Christ makes me the best person I can be. I am a Christian because I need something to continually convict me and call me to a higher state (besides my wife, that is!). Russell acknowledged this ("it makes men virtuous," he said) and shot it down as a reason for believing in God. Well, I would agree it's not a proof for God's existence (nor is it a proof for God's nonexistence), but neither is it a bad reason to be a Christian!
Mostly, though, I am a Christian because of a deep sense ... a sense deeper than any I have ... that it is good, it is right and it is who I am. That's not the same as certitude. Maybe Kevin Smith had it right in Dogma.
I think it's better to have ideas (than beliefs). You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier. Life should malleable and progressive; working from idea to idea permits that. Beliefs anchor you to certain points and limit growth; new ideas can't generate. Life becomes stagnant. That was one thing the Man hated - still life. He wanted everyone to be as enthralled with living as He was. Maybe it had something to do with knowing when He was going to die. but Christ had this vitality that I've never encountered in another person since.
Maybe that's also why I'm an Episcopalian. As a priest, I took a vow that "I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation." I meant it then and I mean it now. I believe the living God is revealed in the living word of scripture.
And I also believe the living, evolving, revolutionary, transforming Word of God revealed in scripture and in the life and person of Christ is what we need for salvation -- to save us. Not to save us from some Southwest Airlines flight to hell with "Dude, Where's My Car" as the eternal inflight movie when we die. But to save us from the difference between what life can be in God and what life is without God.
So maybe I agree with Russell about the "Good World"
A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men. It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence. It needs hope for the future, not looking back all the time toward a past that is dead, which we trust will be far surpassed by the future that our intelligence can create.
For me, Christianity is those things that Russell aspires for and is not those things of which he despairs. God created us for and calls us to a fearless outlook (aren't the angels and Jesus always saying "be not afraid!"?). God didn't make us the way we are to look back toward a dead past ... we must look for the living faith that still sings forward from the past and becoming with our voice the continuing song of a continuing creation that knows no bounds in beauty and joy.
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"Christ's example is being
demeaned by the church if they ignore the new leprosy,
which is AIDS. The church is the sleeping giant here.
If it wakes up to what's really going on in the rest
of the world, it has a real role to play. If it doesn't,
it will be irrelevant."