Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Impossibly-Just God

A common refrain among my more conservative friends is that "it's all very well and good to go on and on about God's love and all -- but if that's all you talk about, then you're painting an incomplete picture of who God is."

My first instinct is to google "logical fallacies" and then be all smart (or smarmy?) by sounding off about how this commits a "fallacy of exclusion" or somesuch -- taking two things that aren't mutually exclusive and pretending that they are.

Instead I'll just say: good luck not painting an incomplete picture of who God is. 

It's not a question of whether you'll get God wrong, but rather how badly, and to what end. If your goal is to get God a little less wrong and in a direction that does more good, then it's my belief that you could do far worse than to make Love your primary lens for the interpretation of the divine.

As I said in that Doubt-Post, though, it's not something I'll argue about. That just seems silly.

I do want to ask, though, why it is so important to some people that God's Love not be the primary, trump-card lens; and why the default attribute of God so often proposed as a "corrective" to this is God's Justice.

I do not know how to answer this. 

Perhaps the place to start would be to ask what Justice is.

Webster's Dictionary says that it's "1, conformity to moral principles or law; just conduct. 2, merited reward or punishment. 3, the administration of law; authority; jurisdiction. 4, a judicial officer; a judge."

Since the first, third and fourth definitions are self-referential, I'm gonna focus on the second, "merited reward or punishment" [emphasis mine].

Here's where I take a deep breath.

After watching Michael Sandel's Harvard course on Justice online, I've decided I'm quite fond of the foundational intent of the American Justice System. But anybody who pays anything close to attention to the ways that gets worked out day-to-day knows that it often just plain isn't worked out. People suck at determining merit, and are all too easily influenced by aspects external to any given case that comes before the court... things like race, economics, and that slightly-curdled milk one of the jurors had in his breakfast cereal.

I guess what I'm saying is that while I like the concept of humans meting out merited justice, it seems our attempts to make it happen are only ever going to be successful in a very limited way. Human fear and lust after power and control will always step in and screw things up, a little or a lot.

This bothers me. Gobs.

So I understand why people would want and need to believe that God would someday ensure that justice does get done. That things are made right. 

It needs to happen if any of this balagan we're living through is gonna make any sense -- if it's not just a big, cruel, soulless universe, governed only by the caprices of human bestial instinct and the cold mathematics of our atomic make-up. So, I hope for it. I yearn for it. I even believe it, sometimes, and work a little to help it happen today.

I think this is a good thing, and I refuse to grant that my detractor's cries for Justice are just another manifestation of the misguided belief all humans have that they are one of the good guys who would come out on top if True Justice were ever given.

Nonetheless, I do not think that our ongoing failure as a species to correctly administer justice necessitates the belief that we are completely incapable of comprehending what that justice might look like, if we were to see it. I think, rather, that Justice is something written on our souls and on our mitochondria, and that while we may (and do) live our lives blind to the sea of injustice in which we swim... if someone is able to clearly show us an injustice, we are able to apprehend it as such.

Let's look, then, at the instance of divinely-ordained baby-smashing I've been talking about in those psychotic-God posts. 

Can that be Just? Is there ever an instance in which smashing a baby on some rocks could be viewed as an application of True Justice? No. And I'm gonna say it again, for the slow ones -- NO! Not just that, but I think that anybody who argues to the contrary is actually doing something injust, and unloving, and evil.

And yet the Bible repeatedly depicts God as condoning this sort of thing. Babies are smashed on rocks. Canaanites are killed so someone else can have their land and lifestock. Job's life is royally effed-up because of a bet God made with Satan, and a couple dudes get iced for trying to keep the Ark of the Covenant from falling on the ground.

None of that is just. And I think we know that, however hard we might try not to.

Today I went in and had my taxes done by a guy who commented (because of my name) that Joshua is his favorite book in the Bible. "Well, the first part," he said, "later, that's when all the killing starts." He caught himself, and added, "But I suppose they were being punished for their wickedness."

It was an afterthought, though -- a negation of what I believe was his truer, more Justice-acknowledging instinct: he enjoyed the adventure and excitement of the Stories of Joshua, but felt uncomfortable with the grave injustices contained therein.

I've been told to stop feeling uncomfortable with injustice. I've been told that because Adam and Eve took one literal bite of one literal piece of fruit, then some babies do deserve to be smashed on rocks and tortured for all eternity. I'm told that because Canaanites did bad things, they deserved to be killed so that the Israelites (who also did bad things, but won an arbitrary free pass) could have their stuff.

None of that is Just. No, no, no. NO!

I want to believe that God is Love, but I know that part of loving someone is to desire Justice for them. So I read these stories of an unjust God and I say, "Barkey... it's time to make a choice: Love, or not-love. Justice, or injustice."

I can ignore what my mitochondria are telling me about what Justice and Love are, or I can conclude that the interpretive framework I've been handed for the Bible is just wrong.

That I can read the Bible through a different framework -- one that suggests that the writers of it were part of a grand Art-project, trying to explain and explore how they experienced and understood God... just like I do when I try to write something down.

And just like me, they sometimes wrote it down wrong. They chose fear-and-power-driven injustice. They chose against Love.

I go with this interpretation.  Mostly because it feels right, and freeing, and good.

Love flows in.

(and, hopefully, a little out)

4 comments:

  1. "It's not a question of whether you'll get God wrong, but rather how badly, and to what end. If your goal is to get God a little less wrong and in a direction that does more good, then it's my belief that you could do far worse than to make Love your primary lens for the interpretation of the divine."

    I very much agree with you on this - particularly on the idea that we will necessarily and always get God wrong. And I agree with you in the way in which I will risk getting God wrong by erring (ideally) on the side of love. The difficulty comes in saying we should err in the "direction that does more good". Again, I happen to agree with your thinking on how I choose to see God and how I think that means I should interact with the world around me, but I don't think you are going to find many Christians (or humans in general) who say that they like to err in the direction that does less good. I believe that our more conservative brothers and sisters will argue that erring on the side of good means focusing on evangelizing in light of coming judgment or wrath or the general crappiness of the human condition. I don't know what to do with that tension of both sides thinking the other has a myopic and one-dimensional view of who God is. I hate to say it, but I'm finding less and less in common with that sort of Christianity. I don't want to seem condescending but I can't change the fact that I feel so liberated since I (mostly) left that mindset behind. God is love, love is the answer. Let love rule.

    As an aside, I happened to see Lenny Kravitz play in Barcelona last summer and he finished his show with a 12-15 minute version of Let Love Rule. It kicked ass, and it's the perfect message for the world today.

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    1. Yeah... I seeya on those points, cuz. Liberating, indeed -- it's nice to no longer feel the weight of the world on my shoulders. I guess the upside to losing the fellow-feeling connection to those who think the way I used to is that I'm no longer emotionally troubled at the thought that I might somehow "get it wrong" and fall out of line with what I'm "supposed" to believe.

      I already know I've got it wrong. So I can focus on behaving in a loving manner toward everybody -- even those who think I'm an idiot :)

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