According to a recent poll, 51% of likely Republican primary voters do not believe Barack Obama was born in the United States. That is a staggering number for many reasons. Personally, I think it's terrifying that so many people have given up on logic and reason in the name of fear and hate, but this essay isn't really going to be about politics. In fact, there is one thing that even the most adamant Birther would agree with me on: that poll ... means absolutely nothing.
We live in a democracy, and as such we occasionally get the chance to decide things by popular vote, but we do not get to elect facts. Barack Obama was born in Hawaii or he was not. It does not matter if 1% of people doubt the authenticity of his birth certificate or if 100% of people do. It does not matter if Obama himself comes to doubt that birth certificate. We are talking about an independent, objective fact. It does not matter who believes in it.
My friend Elliot is currently living in Zimbabwe, and so it makes perfect sense that he's taken to writing long-form essays about recruiting in college football. Lately, we've been going back and forth on the value of overall class rankings for a given year's recruiting. That is, what does it mean when ESPN says Florida State has the best recruiting class for 2011? Both Elliot and I think such a statement is dubious, but for different reasons. Elliot is adamant that there is no such thing as a best recruiting class. It does not exist. It is a meaningless term. He does not believe Florida State has the best recruiting class for 2011 because such a thing is a figment of some ESPN employee's imagination.
I don't believe Florida State has the best recruiting class either, but only because I don't believe any two people agree on the definitions and methodology necessary to make such a determination. How do you compare the value of one five-star recruit against four two-star recruits? Does a class have to be balanced? Fit the needs of the team? Work with the team's style? Will the best recruiting class necessarily produce results, or is that a different calculus altogether? If marquee players get injured, or arrested, and never play at all, does that hurt the quality of the class, or was the ultimate goal just to sign guys? No one has ever explained this to me in a way that makes sense. So, while I don't believe Florida State has the best recruiting class in the country, I do believe it is possible, someday, that someone will set upon a ranking metric that I agree with, and I will then be comfortable proclaiming Team X the best in all the land. It will be the best because I believe it is the best.
So, when I say, "I don't believe in God," is that the same as saying, "I don't believe Barack Obama was born in the United States" or "I don't believe Florida State has the best recruiting class for 2011"?
Growing up, I was taught that the Bible was the infallible word of God. It was an all or nothing proposition. If you didn't believe that the world was created in six literal days, then you didn't believe that Jesus died for your sins, you didn't believe in heaven and hell, you didn't even believe in basic morality. You couldn't.
For this reason, there was always a huge disconnect in me when I watched friends of mine confront their issues with faith. When asked "How could God send billions of people to hell/send Gandhi (or some other great non-Christian humanitarian) to hell/condemn all homosexuals/subjugate women/do basically any of the things God did in the Old Testament?" the answer most of my friends were able to find surprisingly easily was simply "I can't believe in a God that would do that." And so, as a result, in their personal theology, God didn't do that. God wasn't like that. Keeping the compatibility of the narrative just wasn't important to them. Here is what I believe God should be like, therefore, here is what God is like. In this way, I cannot be wrong. I believe the best recruiting class in the country would have X attributes, Team X's recruiting class has X attributes, therefore Team X has the best recruiting class in the country. In this way, I cannot be wrong. I have never been able to accept that kind of reasoning when it comes to the existence of God.
There's a South Park episode where a group of new arrivals show up in Hell complaining that they were true to their various religions and therefore should be in Heaven. The Hell Director tells, them, "Oh no, I'm sorry, the correct answer was 'Mormon' ... yes, 'Mormon'" as the scene shifts to the gates of Heaven, full of celebrating Mormons. This is, roughly, how I imagine the afterlife will actually play out, if there is one (though obviously I couldn't tell you which religion will be celebrating). Personally, I believe that when you die, that's it. Nothing. But I understand that the possibility exists (however small) that I will die and instantly realize that I was wrong, that a God of some kind exists and that certain actions were required during life on Earth to secure happiness in the afterlife. At this point, it will not matter what I have chosen to believe.
As of today, I am fairly confident in my atheism. My understanding of the world does not require the existence of God, so why needlessly complicate? In the same way, the Birther conspiracy would require complicity and deceit on a nearly global level for basically no reason, so why not just accept that a birth certificate really is a birth certificate? Both of those beliefs make total sense to me, but the possibility exists that this will not matter in the slightest. The seemingly far-fetched could nonetheless be true. The existence of God is a fact that exists independent of me.
The most basic premise of this whole exercise is that we will never prove the existence of God. We will never disprove it either. No one will know the truth until death, and at that time no one will be able to escape it. This is a thorny issue that's actually pretty easy to put a happy gloss on if you're a Christian rock band. Just keep singing about how your faith is strong, and you have no doubt, and that it's all in God's hands. Pretend that belief in God is the obvious conclusion to be drawn from the world around you. Ignore that science and history don't always mesh with your theology. Never get too close to the fundamental uncertainty of anything beyond this world. There are literally hundreds of songs along those lines.
Given that, I don't think it's possible to overstate how incredibly brave today's song truly is.
mewithoutYou has become the go-to Christian band for the progressive non-Christian. The band was lauded at length in both Body Piercing Saved My Life (so far the definitive work on the Christian rock scene) and Rapture Ready! (a cross-cultural study whose best sections dealt with Christian rock), and even cracked the 2009 year-end Top 20 albums countdown at This Recording, the all-around wonderful blog home of Alex Carnavale and (until just recently) the great Molly Lambert. Without belaboring a forced comparison, it's safe to say the band's recent work would probably appeal to fans of The Decemberists. 2009's It's All Crazy! It's All False! It's All a Dream! It's Alright! is a wonderful album with at least four brilliant songs (given enough time, I will probably write essays about all of them).
It's possible every Jesus Music essay from here on will include a quote from John Jeremiah Sullivan's "Upon This Rock," so just go read it now. Today's quote is:
Talent tends to come hand in hand with a certain base level of subtlety.
Subtlety, of course, is not often found in the lyrics of even the most talented Christian songwriters. Subtlety, after all, presupposes shades of gray. It is based on the proposition that the truth is not always best attacked head-on. It is occasionally couched in terms that would lead one to believe that the truth may not even be the most important thing.
Christianity, of course, is a black and white enterprise. No man comes to the Father except through me. This truth must be front and center at all times. It can never share the spotlight with doubt, or debate, or an opposing viewpoint, which is amazing, since this truth can never be proven. It can never be disproven, either, but that doesn't make it any easier to believe. You live your whole life based on this series of beliefs, the existence of God, the existence of Heaven and Hell, the deity of Jesus Christ, the resurrection, all of it, these are the bedrock, the very foundation of your whole worldview, but you will never have certainty. You may have an inner peace some days. You may have faith. But you will never know. As far as concepts to convey in a six minute folk-rock song, "I have based my life on a particular set of beliefs, and I understand that I will never be able to prove any of them, and I understand that the world may consider me a fool for this, and I even understand that the possibility exists that they are right for doing so, and yet this changes nothing"* is pretty high up there on the degree of difficulty chart.
So let's take a look at the lyrics to "The King Beetle on a Coconut Estate":**
As the moon rose and the hour grew lateThe day-help on the coconut estateRaked up the dried leaves that fell dead from the treesWhich they burned in a pile by the lake
The beetle king summoned his menAnd from the top of the rhododendron stem,"Calling all volunteers who can carry back hereThe Great Mystery has been lit once again"
One beetle emerged from the crowdIn a fashionable abdomen shroudSaid, "I'm a professor, you see, that's no mystery to meI'll be back soon, successful and proud"
But when the beetle professor returned,He crawled on all six, as his wings had been burnedAnd described to the finest detail all he'd learnedThere was neither a light, nor a heat, in his words
The deeply dissatisfied kingClimbed the same stem to announce the same thingBut in his second appeal sought to sweeten the dealWith a silver padparadscha ring
The lieutenant stepped out from the lineAs he lassoed his thorax with twineThinking, "I'm stronger and braver and I'll earn the king's favorOne day all he has will be mine"
But for all the lieutenant's conceitHe too returned singed and admitting defeat"I had no choice, please believe, but retreatIt was bright as the sun, but with ten times the heat
And it cracked like the thunder and bloodshot my eyesThough smothered with sticks, it advanced undeterredCarelessly cast an ash cloud to the sky, my lordLike a flock of dark vanishing birds"
The beetle king slammed down his fist"Your flowery description's no better than his!We sent for the great light and you bring us this?We didn't ask what it seems like, we asked what it is!"
His majesty's hour at last is drawn nighThe elegant queen took her leave from his sideWithout understanding, but without asking whyShe gathered their kids to come bid their goodbyes
And the father explained, "You've been somewhat deceivedYou've all called me your dad, but your true Dad's not meI lay next to your mom and your forms were conceivedYour Father's the light within all that you see
He fills up the ponds as He empties the cloudsHolds without hands and He speaks without soundsHe provides us with the cow's waste and coconuts to eatGiving one that nice salt taste, and the other its sweet
Sends the black carriage the day death shows its faceThinning our numbers with kindness and graceAnd just as a flower and its fragrance are oneSo must each of you and your Father become
Now distribute my scepter, my crown, and my throneAnd all we've known as wealth to the poor and alone"Without further hesitation, without looking back homeThe king flew headlong into the blazing unknown
And as the smoke ring hurled higher and higherThe troops flying loops around the telephone wiresThey said, "Our beloved's not dead, but his highness insteadHas been utterly changed into fire"
Why not be utterly changed into fire?Why not be utterly changed into fire?Why not be utterly changed into fire?Why not be utterly changed into fire?
Here is the Knight of Faith*** quality of this song. As outside observers, as humans ... we know it was just fire. We know the King Beetle is dead, and we know he died for basically no reason. We hear the line "Why not be utterly changed into fire?" repeated at the end of the song, and we can tell you why not: because it's just a euphemism for death and that's it.
And yet Aaron Weiss (songwriter/frontman for mewithoutYou) takes this story and sides with the King Beetle. And that, to me, is an honest approximation of what it means to believe in God.
The King Beetle will not be coming back. The Professor and the Lieutenant will never be the same. The "great mystery" spoken of in the song's early lines has produced very real casualties, no proof of its goodness, but real, tangible proof of its capacity to inflict pain. Were the principals themselves to blame? Was it the Professor's pride, the Lieutenant's ambition and greed? Can the pure of spirit approach the fire without fear? The neutral observer is free to construct theories to this end, but there's no obvious reason to believe this is so. Even the beetles themselves, proclamations of the troops aside, would have to conclude that the King Beetle is, in fact, dead. The physical evidence doesn't require that you believe the King Beetle is dead, but it certainly weighs in favor of that conclusion. And this physical evidence is absolutely all you have. As a beetle deciding whether or not to approach the fire, you have three real-world horror stories, and you have the King's noble before-the-fact certainty, and you have whatever it is that you, personally, believe about the nature of the fire.
Once you get over the initial existential terror, atheism is pretty easy, especially compared to any kind of sincere belief. In response to pointed, "How do you explain THIS?"-type questions, it's totally within my worldview to say, "Well, I can't. I guess I just don't really think about it." Belief, though, creates the need to attach meaning, and reason, to everything, a place within the greater perfect scheme. And that can be exhausting, and confusing, and sometimes it makes you look crazy. And I guess all I want from Christians is an admission that believing in God makes life much harder, not easier, that you fight with it, that sometimes you worry the great mystery is nothing but fire. Because I could absolutely respect that. I wouldn't criticize you for willingly choosing to make your life harder, and I can absolutely relate to songwriters like Weiss who struggle with the same doubts that I gave into, even if his struggle led him to the exact opposite conclusion. Because, if there really is a God, and this is what God truly expects from his creation ... then it really wasn't a choice at all. And why NOT be utterly changed into fire?
* I mean, it's basically the premise for Fear and Trembling, and it took Kierkegaard a lot more words than this.
** The story repeated here actually comes from a book of Sufi parables, The Divine Luminous Wisdom: That Dispels the Darkness by M.R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. If you don't know what Sufism is, well, neither did I. Here's a Wikipedia page. Full text of the parable is available here.
*** Since I dropped a Kierkegaard footnote a page ago, I'm going to assume you're all totally familiar with his work now. If not, this is basically how I understand it.