Is It Okay to Argue with God?

Jacob Wrestling with an Angel, Jack Levine

Some believers talk about a personal relationship with God. Their thoughts reach out to the Supreme, and God answers back. But all relationships eventually lead to conflicts. Is it okay to argue with God?

I attended a series of talks in which representatives from different faiths explained core beliefs and unique features of their religions. A Jewish woman proudly declared that the descendants of Israel had a right to argue with God. Jacob wrestled with an angel, God’s representative, and won a blessing. Job pointed out to God that his fate did not match his state of piety. Hadn’t he done all the right things? And for this he loses family, property and good health? God chose not to smite Job for impudence, but answered at length and restored good fortune to His faithful servant.

St. Theresa of Avila once chided God. She fell into a ditch during a rainstorm. She sat in the mud for a minute, stood up and shook her fist at the sky. She said, “If this is how You treat Your friends, no wonder why You have so few of them!”

I was raised a Roman Catholic, and the priests never based a sermon on St. Theresa’s soggy moment. God might be our Father, but no one thought it was a good idea to question the Ultimate. Privates don’t sass the general.

But wouldn’t it be a relief if we could vent once in a while? Would the world end, would our souls get fried to crispy bits if we gave an honest reaction to God about the latest unexpected misfortune plaguing our lives?

I’ve heard some theologians promote the idea of unquestioning gratitude. They suggest that the response to every vicissitude should be, “Thank you, God.” The argument goes, “If we’re grateful for the pleasant things that come from God, then we should be grateful for the painful things too. It all comes from the same source; it’s all part of the same plan.” That position might be fine for fully realized spiritual beings, but what about the rest of us?

I don’t thank God at funerals. Don’t feel gratitude when unfortunate phone calls announce upcoming tragedies. (My prayer during these times is for endurance. I don’t want to become a bitter jerk in the face of harshness.)

Sometimes I let Him in on the misery I’m feeling. I pray, “Here I am, Lord. By the way, this sucks!” I don’t blame God after registering my complaint, but I do ask, “What’s the point of this? Was this the only way this could go?” Those are the only genuine questions I can ask.

Learning to Say No

A sweet fifteen-year-old girl came to our door with a friend in tow. They wore knee length dresses and carried Bibles. Sweetie asked Judy whether she thought the world’s condition had grown worse and worse. Judy decided to counter the opening pitch by reassuring the girls that some things were actually getting better. They gave Judy a warm smile and asked if they could come back for another chat. Judy said yes.

The girl returned a week later with her father. I met them on my front porch as I knew better than to let them enter the house. She started a Bible lesson but fumbled for words. Dad stepped in and read a passage. I stopped him by saying, “You’re trying to recruit us, aren’t you? My wife and I are Presbyterians. We’re happy with our church.” The man looked irritated for a second. He recovered his cool and said, “I’m a Bible teacher. I go door to door teaching the Bible.”

The girl returned three more times. She and her mother gave us a Jehovah’s Witness pamphlet the second to last. Judy and I ignored the doorbell when Sweetie came to the door with a young man the last time. I could feel their disappointment: souls lost.

Tonight another sort rang the bell. This guy wore a powder-blue shirt, slacks and a ball cap. His shirt pocket sported a cable company logo. I cut to the chase: “We’re not interested,” I said. “But that’s why I’m here. We want to know why you’re not with us,” he replied. His tone sounded partly perplexed and partly indignant. I had hurt his company’s feelings. “We’re not big media people,” I answered (taking the bait). “We don’t watch TV all the time.” “Okay, but what do you do for your internet?” he asked. I named a phone company. He tried to stir up dissatisfaction by saying, “Do you ever experience any slow-downs? How do you like your network’s speed?” I tried once again to make him go: “You’re trying to sell us something we don’t want.” He smiled and said, “I’m not trying to sell you anything. I’m just asking questions.” “Well, I don’t want to answer questions. I’m tired and I want to sit in my chair and relax,” I replied. He finally trudged away.

I later realized that his strategy included the wear-down technique: keep the mark engaged as long as possible; test patience until the victim gives in to the sale. I should have answered his first question with, “That’s none of your business.” Slamming the door shut would have worked too.

Never Compare

I tell worried students to never compare themselves to others. Our starting lines are different in the race to improve work and hone talent. It does no good to either feel superior (you’re not that near the finish line, so keep running) or inferior (you’re no worse than 90% of beginners). What helps most is to steal. If Sarah turns a line in an attractive way around a shape, rip it off as best you can. If Tom develops exquisite transitions in his tonal changes, take a close look and figure out how he did it. We all have innate abilities, but those who make the most progress remain humble enough to pick-pocket their betters…

I recently heard a passage from a book on Christianity that admonished seekers to jump all in. The writer declared that faithful Christians must trust God completely. Anxiety and fear are signs of weakness, a failure to acknowledge that God walks beside us as we make our journey from this life to the next. True Christians avoid doubts.

Perhaps the writer intended to motivate and inspire readers like a cheerleader demanding loud support from a crowd. But I found the strident words annoying. Some of us struggle for our faith. Who was he to judge?

I sometimes envy folks who have a steady belief in the promises of their faiths. They look forward with greater sureness and joy. My steady companions, however, are doubt and dread. They dog my steps like familiar, persistent enemies.

Perhaps there’s still room for hope. I’ve met people at church who are kind, steady and full of hope. They pray for each other and try to lighten the loads of those in need. Instead of just wishing that my spiritual light would shine as brightly as theirs, I could study them carefully like a robber scanning the floor plans of a bank.

Pastor Bob knows that life is tough and full of suffering, but focuses on the goodness he finds in others. I could try that. Irene feels the supporting influence of prayer carrying her through uncertain times. I could pray for guidance and send hope and assurance to others. Ruth is driven to step in and provide help where needed. I could turn away from my troubles and look for ways to be useful. Arthur focuses on finding God’s presence in the Living Moment. Sounds good to me.

In the end, leading a vibrant spiritual life might be a matter of ripping off the right people.

Quaker Meeting: “I feel the presence of God descending.”

Alapocas Friends Meeting, graphite.

Judy and I sat on padded, upright chairs in a school library. We had joined six other people to form a circle in the dimly lit room. Some stared at the floor; others closed their eyes and frowned; one older man gently snored. The grandfather clock on a near wall ticked, and branches occasionally scraped against the windows.

A fellow next to me said, “I feel the presence of God descending upon us.” I felt nothing but boredom and an urge to massage my neck. I saw that his face had settled into a look of peace as if his mind had become immersed in a field of joy.

I envied the man and wondered if going to a Quaker meeting had been a mistake. My spiritual life hadn’t advanced far enough to give me a sense God in any form. Was I qualified to worship with them? Then I decided that the man’s declaration was evidence of a self-induced delusion.

I went back the next week, however, and sat in the circle. I stared at a rhombus of light on the carpet in front of me. Dick snored and the clock ticked. A sparrow chirped in the bushes outside the window. I started to nod off.

Then a sensation of falling deeper into the silence made me close my eyes. A loving, still, peaceful presence filled my mind. I could recall nothing like this from my short time of practicing meditation. I wondered, “Is this God?”

The Devil and the Creature: Once Upon a Time

Once upon a time there was a devil.  God told him to take the blame when things went wrong for the creature, the one who walked upright and thought too many thoughts.  The devil’s compensation:  he could play with the creature.

The devil, by definition, had bad intentions.  But God told the devil that he couldn’t add anything to Creation to make the creature more miserable.  He couldn’t, for example, unleash a grizzly killer whale or a hurricane volcano.   That would be going out of bounds, and all games had to have limits.

So, the devil chose a more subtle approach:  he exploited passion.  If something felt good to a creature, he whispered “more” in its ear.  Addicts abounded.  If a human grew angry, the devil posed a question:  “what would it feel like to punch that jerk in the mouth?”  Dentistry, an evil that God allowed to arise (the sight of toothless multitudes offended Him), spread across the earth.

The devil wasn’t responsible for wars, orphaned children, sexually transmitted diseases, and addiction.  He didn’t force the creature to set up governments, give power to rulers and bureaucrats, and settle disputes with lawyers.  He didn’t teach the creature to forge metals into weapons or ferment grains into alcohol.  He never said that women and men were unequal, or that certain areas of the body were unclean.  He just made a few suggestions, and  the creature did the rest.

God saw that things had gotten worse for the creature but did nothing era after era.  God was Everything, all existence abided in Him, and nothing occurred that shouldn’t.  “Should” and “shouldn’t” were in God’s vocabulary (He made all the words), but He rarely took them seriously.  But the creature began to get mouthy, to whine and complain about its plight.  The devil still took most of the blame, but the humans had figured out that the demon was part of creation, was part of Everything.  They began to dust their disasters for God’s fingerprints.

God called the devil to His side and demanded an explanation.  The devil arrived with five lawyers who protested when God denounced the devil.  “It’s all in the contract,” they insisted.  God banished the lawyers to the outer darkness and let the devil creep away.  The lawyers had forgotten that injustice was part of Everything and got what they deserved.  He would have banished the devil too, but He still needed a fall guy.

God puzzled for a micro-nanosecond (He’s very bright and quick) and decided to create religion.  Religion would give the creature guidelines to limit self-inflicted misery.  The devil would still create mischief, but now the humans would have choices to make.  They couldn’t blame God if He spelled out the rules and gave them freedom of action.

The devil crept out of his hiding place when the priests and prophets arrived.  “I was getting bored,” he thought.  “But this is going to be so much fun!”

Once Upon a Time: God and the Devil

DSC_0151 (3)

Once upon a time there was a God who was Everything.  Everything meant hot and cold, life and death, good and evil.  A creature arose out of everything who began to think for itself.  And the creature’s descendants eventually began to blame God when things went wrong.  Cousin Fred died in an ice storm.  Why did God take him away?  Was God angry at Fred?  What did Fred do to offend, and how might the survivors avoid God’s punishment?

Now God didn’t think that he was responsible.  He was Everything, and Everything meant all possibilities.  If a creature wanted to complain, he certainly could–complaining was just another part of Everything.  So was suffering and fear.  So was satisfaction, comfort and pleasure.  The creature couldn’t have only the things it wanted if it was part of Everything.

But God grew tired of listening to the creature’s complaints.  They went on and on, and their prayers and petitions and offerings grew tiresome.  What did they expect from Him?  Hadn’t He already given them Everything?  So God allowed Satan to arise.  And God said to Satan, “You’re my fall guy.  When things go wrong for the creature, you take the blame.”

But clever Satan said, “What’s in it for me?”

God said, “You get to exist and be part of Everything.”

“No thanks,” Satan replied.  “I’d rather sink back into Nothingness than to be an unpaid and despised Somethingness.”

God could see Satan’s point, so He said, “Okay, you get to play with the creature.  These people can be a lot of fun.”

“Play with them?  What do you mean?” Satan asked.

“Use your imagination,” God blandly replied.

“Deal!” said Satan.

 

Dinosaurs and Heaven: Science vs. Religion

dinosaur angel

When I moved to Orlando I saw decals on cars that carried on a debate between science and religion.  One was a fish, a symbol of Christianity, and letters inside its outlines spelled out “truth”.  Another decal showed the outlines of the same fish, but little feet replaced the fins.  The letters inside spelled “Darwin”.  A third decal came in the form of a “truth” fish eating a “Darwin” fish.  I’m not sure if anyone’s thought up a fourth.

I’ve seen YouTube videos of mothers protesting against public schools teaching boys about dinosaurs.  They believe that a boy’s aggressive tendencies can be awakened by seeing pictures of T-Rexes, that these images “bestialize” their sons.  Some mothers insist that dinosaurs never existed as the Bible does not mention them.  The thunder lizards are a hoax perpetuated by paleontologists to get grant money from the government.

Other groups believe that dinosaurs did exist, but not before Adam.  They ignore evidence provided by carbon dating.   They claim instead that God snapped His fingers, and the earth suddenly teemed with all the creatures that would ever walk, swim, ooze and fly.  (Whoop, there it was!)

The graphics that illustrate this proposition lack imagination.  They usually show kids playing with baby brontosauruses while a volcano puffs benevolently in the distance.  But if you thought about the rampant conditions shortly after this Creation moment, you’d have to conclude that our planet was truly exciting for the species that currently survive.  Elephants would have had to outrun T-Rexes.  Lions and wolves would have  fought velociraptors over kills.  Owls and eagles flew along side pterosaurs, and sharks competed with fifty foot mosasaurs for the rights to seal hunting waters.  (If I were Adam I wouldn’t have lazed about naming this and that creature and pining for a soul mate.  Instead I would have found a dark corner in a cave and hid myself away while the rest of creation sorted things out.)

I once worked with a woman named Mrs. Putterbaugh.  She was deeply religious and did not approve of a coworker, my roommate Dave.  He was a master’s degree student in biology.  Dave believed that science would eventually solve all the mysteries of the universe and that any form of religion was an obsolete superstition.  She complained about his impatient dismissal of her beliefs and said, “The really smart ones have a hard time getting into heaven.”

She smiled at me as she said that, and I knew that she included me in the heaven bound elect.  She assumed two things:  1) I was not as smart as Dave; 2) my faith in scripture outweighed my belief in science.  My roommate was smarter, but my attitude toward religion at that time was almost identical to his.  If he and I had been plastered flat on I75 by a jack-knifing semi, we both would have been consigned to the flames.

I didn’t tell Mrs. Putterbaugh that it’s foolish to cling to myths disproved by science.  And I didn’t explain to her that the earth has existed for 4.5 billion years, that creatures gradually evolved over millions of years, and that T-Rexes never lay down with lambs.  She would have closed her ears and begun leaving Bible tracts at my work station.

Now I might fare better in a discussion with her.  I believe in the ability of science to describe and predict reality, but also believe that the practice has its limits.  We are puny creatures with limited means of exploring the vast reaches of creation.  It’s arrogant to assume that we will know and understand All if given a enough time to smash subatomic particles and balance equations.

Only God knows why He (She, It, The Cosmic Transcendence) bothered to let the universe be in the first place.  Science is good at figuring out what and how, but usually avoids why.  There are no equations that answer this question:  what’s the point of existence?

The Roman Catholic church has overcome it’s past of suppressing science, and generally embraces the idea that religion and science can coexist in harmony.  My fifth grade teacher, a nun named Sister Joseph Marie, commented, “The Catholic Church has no problems with Darwin and the theory of evolution.”  A classmate asked, “But what about Genesis?  Doesn’t it say that everything was created in six days?”  Sister replied, “What is a day to God?”