Monday, May 14, 2012

The rules that rule the ruler: The bigger the Bible the smaller the god

It's all about the tough calls. This photo on the left always gives me chills. We see Obama, Biden, Clinton and the rest of the White House staff watching anxiously to see whether the raid to get Osama Bin Laden was successful. The anniversary of this event was two weeks ago and of course it was played out in the media, with Democrats making political capital by reminding the public of this more meaningful 'mission accomplished' moment and the Republicans playing their own politics by claiming that the Democrats should not be political.

Whatever your  political leaning, you have to admit that this was a true leadership moment for Barack Obama. This is why countries have presidents, prime ministers or chancellors. It's to make difficult decisions like these. In the midst of uncertainty and ambiguity, you have to weigh up the options and make the call realising you have to live with whatever the outcome is. The advice may come to you from all directions conflicting and contradictory. History and precedent may be there as a guide, but at the end of it all the buck stops at you. Maybe due to shrewd judgement, maybe through some luck or perhaps a bit of both, Obama came out smiling at the end. You have to take risks sometimes as a leader and you deserve the accolades when it works as much as the brickbats when it goes wrong. To make the decisions when there is no clear answer. That is what a ruler does.

Fast forward to last week and the US president was back in the news again. This time the call he made was also impactful, but in an entirely different way. The president referred to his 'evolving' opinion that now is in favour of same sex marriage. This was indeed  a significant departure from the form of his previously held transitional belief. I hope creationists will now recognise that macro evolution can occur given enough time and the right political environment. To me it was a welcome evolution, but others certainly viewed this mutation as a backward step.

Huge as this statement might have seemed to many, Barack was careful to say that it was a personal opinion. It wasn't a call to go to war to kill the opposing fundamental Christian views. It  wasn't an order to surge into churches and capture clergy. Yet, the vocal response by many, suggests that some saw it just like that. It was a curious response. Surely it is what the ruler in heaven says that  will ultimately matter on issues like these.Why should they even care what Barack thinks? Are the fundamentalists telling us that  Barack Obama is like God? Not so far fetched. Seems at times they give almost as much weight to what he says as to the words of their precious saviour.

In looking at Barack Obama as a leader over the past couple of weeks, I couldn't help but think about their own ruler up in heaven and how he compares. In one sense we are told that God is like the Barack Obama who gave the order to kill Osama Bin Laden. Strong and authoritative, one whose orders have to be carried out exactly as he says, one whose will cannot be resisted. Then, at other times we see their ruler like the Obama we saw giving his views on same sex marriage to the press. One who merely states an opinion and gives others free will to go along with him if they choose. He leaves others a bit lower in state to decide whether his will, will be done or not. It is the ultimate mystery surrounding their heavenly ruler, the fact that he is eternally all powerful, except of course for the times when he is not.

It turns out though that this kind of inconsistency is not the only one that the heavenly president faces. Unlike Obama, their commander-in-chief  is infallible.  His opinions don't evolve, and he has no need to wait nervously after giving a order to see if things turn out right. No, their God has no such worries, he always knows what to do and he can tell us what we should do. We just need to listen to him, follow him and all will be well. Sounds simple right? Well not quite, because it doesn't end there. This infallible God has also written a book which is of course, infallible. God is infallible, he writes a book, it has to be just as infallible as he. The logic does seem watertight but again its not that straightforward.

Let's go back to down to earth again for a moment to see how things work in our domain. We have the leader in the form of a president or prime minister who makes the important decisions. There are also laws, policies, regulations, historical precedence and a constitution that give guidance to leaders. In practice we need both the leader and the book, the ruler and the rules. The laws are good but they are not perfect, they fail sometimes because they can't foresee every situation that you might find yourself in. There are times when you just have to throw out the rule book altogether because it doesn't apply or give one rule a priority over another. That's why you need a human leader that can make that kind of judgement and steer the ship through uncertain waters, make the tough calls like going in for the Bin Laden kill.

Our rules aren't perfect but then neither are our rulers. Rules are there to keep the ruler in line. Without them leaders could do whatever they wanted with no transparency and no accountability. They would be no grounds for appealing or protesting, because they would be no yardstick by which to evaluate anything. Because of the limitations of both rulers and rules, it makes sense to have both in any system of government. If both the rules and rulers are strong, you have a recipe for good governance.

The situation is somewhat different in the heavenly realm where both ruler and rules are infallible. Here, it's not a situation of complementarity, its a situation of redundancy. Why would an infallible God have a need to write a book? He is real, people have a personal relationship with him, he can speak to hearts directly. What could possibly be expressed in the book that couldn't  be said through his own voice? There is no need for accountability or transparency because by definition God is always on the right side. The infallible God makes the book redundant. Similarly, if we have an infallible bible, there is no need for a God. The bible would speak to every circumstance, there would be nothing that would need interpretation or reasoning over it. It would just be a case of read it and do what it says. If the rules are absolutely clear and flawless you don't need a ruler to interpret them for you.

Still, Christians have a strange way of explaining how God and the bible work together. A way which makes both the Lord and his word seem to have limitations. You read the bible first and through it God himself speaks to you. He writes the words and then gives you verbal instructions while you read. This seems unnecessarily complicated. It's like a parent instructing a child by going through the process of writing  a book called 'What I maybe want you to do'  and explaining what they want done by letting the child read the book and then explaining what they actually meant to say in the book. Come on, couldn't you just explain to the kid what you want done and skip the extra literature?

Well maybe, but that's not the way God does it. The bible we are told is God's living word. I still can't wrap my head around this. The words on the pages are dead. Dead from the perspective, that once they are written they are written. They can't undergo natural selection and evolve into new species. I am sorry, I can't see how you can have a living relationship with someone, through the printed words in a book written hundreds of years ago in ancient languages. The bible can't speak to you about your life any more than the 'Nutritional Facts' on a box of cereal can speak to you about your diet. Words can't listen to you and give you advice. They can't evaluate options when you have conflicting goals to reconcile within you. Only a mind is capable of doing such things.

Not a book talk

I have been fortunate enough in the time I have been a part of the CFI community here in Calgary to hear some prominent  authors speak and give lectures on their writings. These include people like Dan Dennett,  James Randi, Lawrence Krauss and Dan Barker. All of these authors have books which represent their views and have been widely read.  When they come to speak  their focus is not on their publications it is squarely on what they are there to talk to the audience about.  Books are always there on show, but their primary purpose is to be scribbled in at the end of the night. The event doesn't start by the speaker asking everybody to open they copy of  ' A Universe from Nothing' to Chapter Three on  Page 35 and start reading together from paragraph five. It just doesn't work like that. Lecturers will speak about what their books contain but they will go further, give more context and give their current thinking and opinions on the issue. They take you beyond the book.Yes, what they will say will tend to be in line with the book, but that's because the book, just like the speech they are giving represents their thoughts. The book can be a useful aid to understanding, but you don't need to have read their work in order to understand the message of their lectures.

It's a similar thing when it comes to me on this blog. Writing articles here has helped me to organise my thoughts on many issues related to faith and atheism. Sometimes I use ideas I have expounded on  here, to explain my position to someone I am engaging with in a discussion. But it is me that is speaking to them when I am debating, not the 'caribatheist blog.'

God on the other hand, should have no need to use references as aids to himself. He doesn't need  a book to remind him what it was he was thinking when he was speaking to his chosen people two millennia ago. He doesn't need it to help himself. It isn't a requirement for communication with us. So, why is it there? But even more important than being there, why is it viewed with almost the same reverence as God? We know  that almost every argument that a theist brings to argue a point about Him begins or ends with a scripture quote.

They say that in the journey of life, the bible should be kept next to you as the manual  for driving. But why do you need to consult a manual when the manufacturer of the automobile is your copilot ready to take over if there's any trouble?

Bibles should be  just for atheists

If there is any need for the manual, it's for the person without the relationship with God. The one who can't access the master directly. To me that means the atheist, the one who has not yet found the way to tune in to God. So, my advice to Christians is to hand the manuals over. Yes, bring the bibles over to us so that we may learn something about the author of your favourite text, because he is obviously not coming over to our university to give a lecture. Yes, you go with God and leave the bibles with us. But we know you'll never do that, you and your saviour's publication must never be separated. I have to ask you again. Why?

One possible answer is that the author of the book is not around. The importance placed on the book might  well mean  that the one who wrote it is no longer here to talk to the masses and answer questions. Any insight into the words on the page would then have to come from your own reasoning and reflection, not from your personal friend outside space and time. Secondary sources like the bible are only really valuable when the primary ones are absent. Contradictory as it may sound, the existence of the bible is probably the greatest piece of evidence against the existence of God. The more that Christians lean on the bible the less they are leaning on God himself. That's why I say the bigger the bible the smaller the god.

The Bible rules

Speaking of big bibles, the book got as large as the supermoon this week, when fundamentalists bashed Obama over the head with it for forgetting that it says that for a man to lie with a man or woman to lie with a woman is an abomination. That's what happens when the bible goes ahead and God stays invisible in the background. It means we have to follow the words written down years ago by his hand, without any way of knowing if it is appropriate for what we are facing now. Once the books of the bible were made into a canon it effectively blasted God out of the picture. He became forever a slave of his text, because not even an omnipotent God can alter the words of an unchangeable book.

If I ever see God I will ask him why on earth  he chose the option of ruling by the book. A leader that needs to govern through only previously existing documents is one that is not sure of himself. It is only  forgivable if you are new to the job and don't have enough experience yet to make decisions through your own reasoning.

Wait, perhaps that's the problem!  God is feeling his way into his role, still needing to stick strictly to what the textbook says. I bet he is having difficulty understanding it just like we do. Maybe he does need the book to guide him in guiding us through on this complex planet. Maybe, he himself is on a trial, only passing down to us what has been passed down to him by someone higher up the ladder that did the hiring.

Well if that's the case, God has been on probation a long time now. I sincerely hope he gets his appointment letter soon, so that he can get on with the job he is being paid to do and put aside the training manual once and for all. I tell you, the world would definitely be the better for it.

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