Well, I’m still working my way through Daniel Meeter’s new book, Why Be A Christian (If No One Goes To Hell)? and sharing my reactions and responses to his ideas from my own non-Christian perspective as a polytheistic Druid. Last time, I gave a quick overview of the book, along with a point-by-point response to his first few chapters. We were pretty much on the same page (no pun intended) for a while there. But then, things started to get a little tricky…
You see, at first Meeter seems to be all about the diversity and plurality of religious traditions, and the reasons he gives for wanting to be Christian are all about ritualistic, aesthetic and mythopoetic appeal: Are the stories of the Bible meaningful to you? Are you inspired by Jesus’s example of a spirit-infused life? Do the practices and rituals of Christian community help you feel more connected to spirit? If so, great! Climb on board the Christian Express. If not? That’s cool, too. All religions cultivate soul and spiritual relationship in one way or another, so go find one that helps you do that in the best, most meaningful and fulfilling way possible.
Meeter gives Christianity a bit of a soft sell, emphasizing all of the ways that being a Christian can help you get your head right and find a more meaningful way of living. But what he doesn’t do is justify, or even articulate, some of the foundational ontological beliefs on which he’s based his arguments. (Hint #1 that you are a mainstream religion: you don’t have to begin your “why be a [member of this religion]” book with an explanation of your religion’s most basic tenets and practices.) As a polytheist and a Druid and a tree-hugging dirt-worshipping deep-ecology type, these assumptions kept insinuating themselves quietly into my awareness like the creeping music underlying a peaceful suburban scene in a David Lynch movie. And they swelled to a crescendo in “Chapter 7: To Be A Human Being.”
Don’t get me wrong. Meeter seems like a very nice guy. He reassures readers:
I am not saying that non-Christians are not human beings or that Jews and Muslims and Buddhists are not human beings. I am not saying this even about atheists and Red Sox fans. I am not saying that Christians are the only human beings, or even that we are better human beings. But what I am saying is that this is why we are Christian, to be human beings, or maybe I should say a certain kind of human being, the kind that reflects a particular image of God. And the kind of God we enjoy and glorify affects the kind of human beings we are.
Fair enough, Dan. (Can I call you Dan?) I’m all for the loving, supportive, caregiver god that you describe in this chapter — he sounds charming. But you’ve missed a few of the more subtle implications of this kind of belief, implications that lead you to make some pretty audacious, unscientific claims about the natural world and the nature of being human. Since the kind of god we worship affects the kind of human beings we are, let’s see if we can’t find out a bit more about your god by looking at the kind of human he inspires.
Allow me to illustrate by way of a parable of my own. You may call this parable “The Gardener in the Oasis.” Or maybe “The Wonders of Ham Radio.”
Imagine There’s No Heaven….
Suppose you live in a desert, in a tiny little oasis only about ten meters in diameter. Your oasis has a couple trees that give you fruit and nuts, and a small wellspring from which clean water flows. You cannot leave this oasis, for the desert stretches out around you on all sides, perfectly flat and featureless as far as the eye can see. You were born in this oasis, and you have never been beyond it, so you have no way of knowing how large the desert is. In fact, it doesn’t even occur to you that the desert has an end to it. For you, the desert is just the background against which your existence takes shape. You think to yourself: How lucky it is that I am in this oasis, this special place where life is possible, when the rest of existence is harsh and lifeless. You can see around you in all directions, a full 360º circle. You think to yourself: How special I must be, for God to have made this perfect little oasis for me right in the middle of this desert. How special I am, for God to have put me in the center of the universe.
But all is not well. Something is wrong. The days in your oasis are too hot, despite the shade, and at night it is too cold. The trees cannot provide enough food on their own, so you use the water to create a small garden so that you can grow your own food. You think to yourself: Look how God has given me stewardship of this oasis. Without me, this garden would have no water and it would die. Without me, the trees would have no reason to bear fruit, their fruit would fall to the ground and die. How special I must be to be given such an important role in this oasis.
One day you notice a figure far out on the horizon where the sky meets the dry, harsh, empty land. The figure is tiny; it seems to be shaped like you, but it is so small that you have trouble seeing it. Because you have never left your oasis, because you have never walked through the emptiness of the desert and watched your oasis recede into the distance, you do not understand the concept of perspective or vanishing points. It does not occur to you that the figure on the horizon might be the same size as you, only very far away. You think to yourself: How great I am, that God made me so much bigger than this other creature.
Your stomach grumbles, reminding you that all is not well. In the wellspring, you see the reflection of your face and you can see how the hunger pains make you grimace. You think to yourself: If I am so special and so great, and yet I suffer this way, something must be wrong. If I could only live up to the greatness that God has made for me, surely then I would not be hungry or cold… or lonely. You think to yourself: Look how the figure on the horizon is so small, it does not even have a face with which to grimace. It is so small that it does not feel the absence of its greatness. It does not feel pain the way I do. In this way, too, God has made me special, so that I might know that something is wrong and work to make things right.
To pass the time, and because you are lonely, you begin doing little experiments in your garden oasis. You learn how to build a radio (stick with me here) that lets you listen to invisible, inaudible patterns of electromagnetic energy in the air. You think to yourself: Boy am I something.
When you listen to your radio, at first all you seem to hear is static. But then, you begin to notice patterns in the noise. You think to yourself: No, this cannot be a pattern from out there beyond the oasis, for the universe is deserted and lifeless chaos except for my place here. It must be that, in my specialness and greatness, I am simply projecting my own patterns into chaos and seeing my reflection there the way I see my reflection in water. How arrogant that is of me! You think to yourself: Or perhaps I am the reflection and God is the pattern, and I am to God the way the reflection in the wellspring is to me. In that case, perhaps I can accept that the patterns coming from beyond my oasis garden are real, but they are simply expressions of God’s greatness. And in being able to see these patterns, I too am special and great, the way God made me.
But then the patterns begin to change. They start to sound like words, and the words say, “I can see something on the horizon. It is so small. It looks almost like me.” You think to yourself: That does not sound like God. For God made me to be great and special, and God knows just how big I am, I am the biggest thing here — except for the trees, which serve me and feed me, so I am greater than they are, too, in my own special way.
You use your radio to ask, “Who are you?”
And the words say, “So you can talk? Hello! We have been trying to reach you for a long time! There once was someone who lived in the oasis who would talk to us, but she is gone now. She must have died. Who are you?”
You say to the radio, “I am the special one that God has made to rule over this place, the only place of life and comfort in the whole universe. There was no one here before me, and there will be no one here after me.”
The words say, “I see. You are like us. You live and die, like us, and cannot remember what came before you or know what will come after you. That is okay. Now that you have a radio, we can talk to each other.”
You think to yourself: I know this tiny creature must be wrong about there being someone here before me — for surely, I am special and great, or God would not have made this special place for me. Perhaps in the same way I see my reflection in water, this tiny being saw its reflection here and mistook it for another small being like itself. If it could truly see things as I do, it would see how large I actually am. How special I must be, since I am able to distinguish reality from reflections.
You say to the radio, “Tiny being, if you could see me as I really am, you would see how big I am, and how we are not alike at all. I see that you have a body, arms and legs, and a head as I do, yes, but because your eyes are so small, you can only see other small things like yourself. You only think we are alike because you do not have the greatness of vision that I do.”
The words from the radio say, “Perhaps you are right. Tell us how large and great you are, for we would like to hear.”
You say to the radio, “I am so great that the sun shines for me so that I might be warm, and the night cools me so that I might rest, and the earth gives water for me so that I might refresh myself and quench my thirst. Because I am so great, I dispense water to the ground to make things grow, for without me there would be no garden and the trees would have no purpose for their fruit. Without me, there would be no wellspring here, for this is the only water in the entire universe and God put this water here to nourish me. But God told me to be like him, and so as God gives me water so do I give water to everything else. For I am very special and very great, but my greatness comes from being like God.”
The words from the radio say, “You sound truly great and amazing. But we are somewhat confused. Where we live, there is a great deal of water. It falls from the sky all the time, and it falls on everyone equally, both those who are great and those who are small.”
You say, “You must be mistaken about where the water comes from because you are so small. Surely, the small sprouts in my garden think that water comes from the sky when I water them, because they are too small to see that I have drawn the water from the well. But I water my plants all alike, for I never know which will grow and which will not. For I am like God, and God gives me water even though something is wrong and sometimes I am not great as God made me, but God does this so that I might grow and become great and special as I was truly meant to be.”
The words say, “Maybe you are right. We do often feel very small indeed, for here there is also a great body of water that we call an ocean. It stretches from horizon to horizon, so that half of all that we see is water, and half is land. The ocean washes ashore in huge waves and it makes a ceaseless mighty roar.”
You say, “Ah! Yes, of course. You are so tiny that a wellspring would indeed look huge to you, and its ripples would overwhelm you like giant waves. Because you are so small, you cannot see that it is only a very small amount of water in the endless lifeless desert that is the universe.”
The words from the radio say, “But the universe does not seem lifeless to us. On land, where the rain falls from the sky, there are many plants and animals and the world is teeming with life. And in the ocean, there are creatures called fish that live and breathe underwater, and they are so plentiful that we are never without food and never hungry.”
The words from the radio disturb you. You think to yourself: These tiny creatures admit to being small, and so of course they would be too tiny to grimace with pain or experience hunger the way I do. It is because I am so big and so great that I need so much to satisfy my hunger and thirst. But what do they mean that there are beings that live in water? It is impossible to live and breathe underwater. These tiny beings feed on death itself, but do not know it. How sad that God would let them die this way. How merciful of God to spare them from the knowledge that they feed on death and so must die themselves.
“Are you there?” the words from the radio ask.
You say, “Yes, I am here. Can you not still see me at the center of the universe? Surely you cannot doubt that I am still here, for I am at the center of everything. But maybe you are so small that you forget that I am at the center, maybe your minds are too small to hold onto the idea of how great I am.”
The words say, “Oh no, that is not why. It is because, from where we are, it looks as if we are at the center of the universe. You are just a tiny figure on the distant horizon, and we appear to ourselves to be the biggest things around. But we know that we are not, because we have used our radio to talk to others, and we have learned from them that all beings experience the universe as if they were at its center.”
You find yourself trembling. You say to the radio, “Of course you are not at the center of the universe! How arrogant of you to presume such a thing! You are tiny and at the very edge of existence. You are lucky that God allows you to exist at all, for you disturb me and I do not like to talk to you! You are only here because something is wrong, you are here to test my faith. But I will not be fooled, and when I am once again great and special as God made me to be, there will be no more need of you and you will be destroyed!”
You throw your radio down and break it, so that the words cannot harass you any longer.
But the tiny figure on the horizon remains. From time to time, you look up to see that it is still there.
Finally, you rebuild your radio. “Hello?” you ask, somewhat meekly.
“Hello!” the words from the radio greet you. “We missed you! We are glad you have decided to talk to us again.”
You say, “Can I ask you a question?”
The words say, “Certainly! We love to share our stories with others. What would you like to ask us?”
You say, “You know that you are small, and you said that even though it looks like you are at the center of the universe, you know that you are not, and that no one else is at the center of the universe either, though it might appear to them that way.”
“But what is the purpose of life, if no one is at the center of the universe? What is the meaning of life, if you know that you are only tiny creatures and you do not have another, greater being around which to organize your life?”
The words on the radio are silent for a long time. Finally, the answer comes: “We cannot tell you what the meaning of your life is, if that is what you are asking. But we have discovered that there is a great deal of joy in sharing our stories with others, as we have shared our story with you. When we share our stories with each other, we are not as lonely and we do not feel as lost, for we know that there are others out there who know us and recognize us by our stories.”
You think to yourself: How can that be enough? I have been telling my story to these tiny creatures all this time, but I still feel frightened and alone.
But your thoughts are interrupted as the words continue, “Even more importantly, we have learned that when we hear the stories of others, we can glimpse how the world looks from their perspective. Somehow, this makes us feel less alone, knowing that just as we are known by others, others are known by us as well, and in that way we are all connected. For we have discovered that there is a great joy and beauty in learning how to listen.”