“God Is Shy” – a story from Syria

PB:

Sad day yesterday – although every day is a sad day, seeing the mounting body count, the maimed, the refugees around the world, especially in the Middle East, and especially Syria – but yesterday, July 29th marks one year since Father Paolo Dall’Oglio disappeared in Raqqa while on a diplomatic mission. I know him, and spent time with him and his associates back when I was teaching with the Kurds. I hope to write more on him in the future, but can’t bring myself to it now. This article does it better than I can, anyway.

Originally posted on Quite Alone:

Last night (29 July) the news came through from Syria that Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, a highly respected Jesuit priest who has lived in Syria for thirty years, had been kidnapped. Rumours began to swirl on social media, first about his kidnapping, then about his supposed late-night release.

At this writing (30 July) it’s not clear exactly what’s happened, or where Father Paolo is.

This is no ordinary abduction (if abduction it is). Since the revolution began in Syria in 2011 Father Paolo has campaigned vociferously among the Syrian people and the international community for a peaceful democratic transition. In 2012 he wrote an open letter to the UN’s envoy Kofi Annan. Then the Assad regime expelled him. He has been living in exile since – and continues to call for ‘victory without revenge‘. His is a voice of sanity amid the madness which has engulfed his…

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Some time ago… Two words

Sometime ago…

Galling bitterness. These two words seem to capture it tonight. After a cold and dreary day at work I said a simple “bye” to a few coworkers on the way out the hall. Somehow I stopped at one guy and exchanged a few extra words. Somehow he gave me a ride down the hill to the apartments our company puts us up in. Somehow I end up in his flat. And somehow, somewhere in this process – I don’t remember where anymore – he breaks to me that he’s getting a divorce. She’s not the person he thought she was. She’s accusing him of things he didn’t do. Spreading lying rumors about him, while he keeps telling others she’s a nice person to hide what’s going on. She’s getting drunk, he can’t drink because he’s too distraught. He’s no angel. But she’s a money grabber. Periodically he puts his head in his hands and mutters “Oh -[an explitive or two]” near tears, but fighting them back.

What can I say? I know them both. We’ve had good times together. What can I say? I feel like an infant attempting to move an Everest of pain with a spoon. I listen. Empathize. Say I’m sorry. A word or two of hopeful cliches. Take his mention of motorcycles and run with it to let him think about something else, of better days, except for his stories of motorcycle accidents… phone calls involving divorce lawyers punctuate our talking. A couple hours pass. A friend of his comes over for a bit, then leaves. I leave too.

I go down the steps and into the dull cold night air, distraught and wishing there was something I could do. I go to my building and want something from my refigerator to give some distraction to this. It’s not there. Roommate took it. And he’s out somewhere now. So, I’m wrote this now. Galling bitterness – these two words for me ring with my feeling sorry for another human being. But I’m not going through his hell. His two words for tonight will be something else. Darker. And not just tonight. And not just two words.

On again

It’s been long time coming. I haven’t really stopped writing the past two years. It’s just on a moleskin notebook, the back of receipts or other scraps of paper instead of a blog.  The private pen, paper, and my lonesome eyes seemed to better fit the times for me, though admittedly fits poorly in the public internet’s immediacy. Not updating a blog for years is like blog suicide. On social networks you’re supposed to post everything for everyone to see all the time.
Has a people ever been so public?

Some Native American tribes in the 1800s had this superstition that having your photograph taken would capture your soul. Maybe that’s not all wrong.

Some time ago a friend posted a picture of me on social media. It caught my facial expression at a certain moment that somehow revealed, or exposed, something of me. I had no control over this – it was just put up as a nice picture, unasked. Why ask, anyway? Everyone uploads pictures of others – it’s actually considered a nice thing to do. Despite the photographer’s innocent gesture, I recoiled at this unwelcome capture of a side of my soul I usually conceal.

What I write is under my control at least. I can choose to publish it, even though anything written reveals something of the writer. It will. The past few years I’ve written the most in my lowest times. You might call it “depression” but that word doesn’t do sad feelings justice. I prefer to say more musical or philosophical-sounding things like “the blues” or “melancholy” or in a really cynical mood to myself, “the hole” or “the dark.”

All that to say, I will start posting a few things I wrote over my absence on this blog.

Each one will begin with “Some time ago…”

A bit of silence

I’ve been observing silence on this blog for a while. I’ve never had this much time away from it before.

I like silence. Sometimes it’s needed. To step back and contemplate, observe, and listen a bit more. Lately, I would rather take in and learn more than speak out. As the ancient saying goes, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

How responsible we are for what we say. Especially in cyberspace. Once you say it, it’s out there for any of the billions of internet users to access. Words are powerful. They can save lives or kill them. They aren’t to be used carelessly. I’m seeing too much of that. I don’t want to do that because I write on serious things. Perusal of my prior posts and drafts shows eating disorders, mourning the murder of my friend, the quest of the search for God, definitions of marriage, poverty…

Fools have no business commenting on these things. Funny thing about fools — fools usually don’t think they are fools to begin with.  Worse, some people think they are quite wise but are not. “Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” (Proverbs 26.12). I don’t know if I’m a fool, but I do know I don’t want to be a self-recognized wise man.

For now, on a day when I turn yet another year older, I listen and learn, observing a beautiful yet terrible world, wishing there was something more I could do to make a difference. God give me wisdom!

Why God should not be left out of the search

I finished reading The Christian Delusion ed. by John Loftus recently. I had a number of disagreements with chapters in this book, but the most prominent one is with how Loftus articulates his “Outsider Test for Faith” (OTF). He frames it in an extremely unreasonable way (strange, since people of Loftus’s rank often make reason the king of everything, nearing the point of worship). Initially, he says that ince there are many cultures and religious viewpoints people are born into, there’s a likelihood yours is wrong, and you need to examine it as though you were an outsider from that religion. Fair.

But he goes on to say, “I’m asking believers to change their assumptions and/or become agnostics. This is what I call the ‘default position.’” (Kindle Locations 1036-1037), And  “The only thing we can and should trust is the sciences. Science alone produces consistently excellent results that cannot be denied, which are continually retested for validity.” (Kindle Locations 1050-1051).

This is bad epistemology. Is agnosticism axiomic? To overcome cultural biases and subjective opinions to find Truth, does one need to leave aside belief in the transcendent totally and be a pure naturalist? Does a Christian have to stop believing in God, the Bible, prayer, and everything else to find if the Christian faith is true? Does a Muslim need to do the same (except stop believing the Quran)? Or a Sikh? Or any other religious person?

While I think the concept of an Outsider Test for Faith is actually a good idea (which, contra Loftus, could pass Christianity) when researching religions, I don’t think you can make blanket eliminations of epistemologies like that. You must avail yourself of whatever epistemology the religion you’re studying holds dear to determine  the truthfulness or falsity of it – if not, your race horse is dead out of the gate. You don’t even give it a fighting chance. By throwing out a religion’s epistemologies to use only your personal, narrow, western, culturally defined epistemology (science), in effect you’ve already decided the religion is not true prior to your journey of study, making your study no longer objective, and therefore subjective and biased. Mr. Loftus is parameterizing the discussion to the philosophical position of Atheism and Naturalism, throwing out entire ways of knowing something as invalid already, a priori. This is anti-intellectualism on level with the worst of religious fundamentalism.

You should use the epistemologies inherent within the Christian faith, and see whether they hold up to their own standards, besides scrutinizing those epistemologies themselves to see if they fit with all the others.

Christianity has something to say about how you find truth, and it would be unfair in any test of the veracity of Christianity to leave these out: prayer, seeking God, the spoken revelation of God (the Bible itself), the work of the God’s Spirit on the human heart,  prior assumption of a revelatory God, and of course the broader epistemologies of reason, experience, etc. that are also found in the Bible.

But this goes for testing any faith. For Islam, you need to avail yourself of Islamic epistemology. Same with Buddhism and the others. Without doing this, it’s like testing to see if Einstein’s E = mc2 is really true but taking out m. Or saying I’m going to test if evolutionary theory is true but you can’t have natural selection, or biology, or genetics considered at all. You never even give the belief system a chance.

Loftus says, “With the OTF I’ll argue that we should adopt a skeptical predisposition as best as possible prior to examining the evidence, if we adopt any predisposition at all” (Kindle Locations 939-940). This reminds me of Philip Johnson’s comment, “One who claims to be a skeptic of one set of beliefs is actually a true believer in another set of beliefs.” This is very true in the typical Atheist’s case. He’s already swallowed the antisupernatural bias of the Academy, believing in naturalistic evolution as the explanation for the universe, existence and everything else. Radical skepticism doesn’t go far. Even skeptics believe in something. Can’t we be both cautious/skeptical and open-minded?

Now, what I’m saying is hotly debated, and it’s no easy thing to develop a model for how to test whether a certain religion is true.  But this is not all. There’s another way Loftus frames OTF that is even more indefensible: He assumes an agnostic position on God’s existence in the OTF.

I’m sorry, but belief in God doesn’t equal religion. Belief or assumption that a god exists is totally independent of a particular faith! A simple theist/deist “outsider” to a faith who desires to search and examine that faith should not leave his belief in a God’s existence at the door. As many philosophers have argued, belief in some Deity can really be a properly basic belief, just as I believe reason exists and that I was not born as a clone in some science experiment. Many people who were not religious believe in some sort of God, at least the God of the philosophers (Aristotle, Spinoza, etc.). As John Dicksonwrites, the arguments and pointers to the existence of a Deity (Deus) are so strong, it’s a “fundamental” belief. He adds, “Where believers of the various faiths part ways is in the particularization of the Deus… Deism is common sense.”  Atheists may not agree, but if we’re developing an Outsider Test for Faith that anyone can use to test a religion, this is significant. If you are a deist or theist searching various religions to discover if God has spoken or not, then prayer to God, seeking his guidance, and contemplation of what he could be like are all vitally important.

I’m going to say something that Atheists and Christians should agree on: The question of God is the most important question anyone can ever think about. Atheists are obligated to agree with this statement. Otherwise, why are atheists spending their lives writing books and debating the issue? Therefore, is it not reasonable, while contemplating whether or not God exists and the nature of this God, to pray? How harmless is it to say “God, if you’re there, help me find you? Where are you?” This requires some faith, at least as much to say that if there is a benevolent God, then he will answer me if I ask him.

I can be an outsider to every religion, every faith, but still believe in a Deity, because no religion has a corner on simple theism or deism. Therefore, if I step back and examine my own religion as an outsider in an attempt to be objective, I need not throw out God. If I’m justified in believing in the existence of a Deus for other philosophical and scientific reasons independent of religious dogma, then I can use prayer to this Being as part of my OTF. The idea of an OTF is a good one. But an OTF model that throws out potentially valid epistemologies is flawed. It will not lead you to Truth. And isn’t Truth the whole point?

Web Musings of Mid-March

I’m on break from school and have done a lot of web-surfing. Good stuff this month so far, and many are worth sharing:

From the BBC -

“A Point of View: Churchill and the birth of the special relationship” on the Churchill’s stance on the relationship between Britain and the US.

Also found a significant article on the Chinese economy and need for reform China is one of the most influential nations in the world right now, so an economic reform there would surely affect the world.

“Encylopedia Brittanica ends its famous print edition.” Thus ends a 244 year era of those precious volumes of knowledge. This made me sad. No more pulling out random volumes and flipping through pages to peruse any article that catches your fancy. They continue their digital version and online prospects… but it’s not the same! :(

LED bulbs: The end of the lightbulb as we know it? LED is being demonstrated as a much better lighting option. It looks like Edison’s 150-year old invention is going the way of the dinosaurs. End of an era! This makes me sad too… Am I too sentimental?

Other News and Views

From The EconomistThe rise of evangelicalism is shaking up the Church of England.  The article implies that this new fervor is influenced by America, which may be true, but it ignores that this is really the fruit of British Evangelical intellectuals like the late John Stott and Lesslie Newbigin.

Nice piece from CNN, Saudi Women: Pampered or oppressed?Do the restrictive laws on women painfully violate their rights or does it pamper them and make “men the slaves of women”? This article challenged my prior opinion a bit, and shows there are varied viewpoints even among women… Oh, and sorry, can’t help but link to singer M.I.A.’s strong opinion on the issue in her song, “Bad Girls.”

“Eyewitness India” from World Magazine. An upstart news agency is giving the people, even some of the rural poor, the power of journalism.

Seth Godwin youtube video, says, “Be curious!”

From the Christian blogosphere:

Tim Nichols at Full Contact Christianity has an excellent series on the necessity of the ordination of women, part 1, part 2, and part 3 Some will say he goes too far; others, not far enough. But it’s exegetical and made me think.

“Some Preach from Envy and Rivalry” by Nick Bogardus.  Very pertinent points in light of the severe problem of sharp polarization in Christianity right now.

Jim McNeely “The Life of Jacob According to Grace” The last few paragraphs really took me. Grace is a powerful thing.

An article on the fact that the atheist gathering, “The Reason Rally”, invited Westboro Baptist Church to their conference (but not legitimate Christian groups). This is yet another example of my long list of disappointments with atheists today.

Parchment and Pen featured Paul Copan on “Longings and Needs as Reasons for Belief in God.” Despite its brevity, I haven’t read anything this good on longing/reason relationship to God’s existence since the hefty bio article on George John Romanes I read last year.

The White Horse Inn posted a thoughtful article by Brooke Mintun in honor of National Women’s Day analyzing Dorothy Sayers on men, women, and humanity. Yes, there is such a thing as National Women’s Day, and must have trended big this year since this is the first I’ve heard of it. Maybe that’s why so many of these links here are women-related.

Clay Jones, Why I Look Forward to Eternity is a fun read to end with.

Mourning the loss of Jeremiah

It’s been exactly one week since the news. Someone I held in high regard died. His name was Jeremiah. Jeremiah Small. He was a dedicated Christian, profoundly humble and deeply caring for other people. He was one of those uncommon types who saw every person as an end in themselves. When we talked together, he talked to me, not at me, and listened in the same manner. He had the qualities of a keen listener. That is probably what made him such a great teacher. He taught at a Christian school in Sulaimaniah, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan. He was on his sixth year, teaching History, English, and the like. Jeremiah was wildly popular with his students. They were crazy about him, because he was crazy about them. This teacher poured himself into his teaching and his students. He didn’t aim to just give facts. He aimed to inspire. And show people the goodness of his God he loved so dearly and the awe of God’s world. I could go on (two further articles from World are here and here). But it ended.

On the morning of March 1st, a Thursday, Jeremiah was opening up his class with a prayer, his pupils in front of him as normal. He thanked God for a beautiful day. Before he could finish, one of them pulled out a pistol and shot him three times. I hear he died with his hands still clasped together. The student then shot himself, and also died shortly thereafter. To this day no one knows why he did it. No note, no clues, nothing.

It is so senseless. It shouldn’t have happened. His existence was important. Men like him are rare. Teachers like him are very rare. Why? It’s as though it left a hole in the world that shouldn’t have been there. The atmosphere itself seemed to disrupt over it. Within 24 hours of his death, a winter storm blew into Sulaimaniah. Frigid wind screamed down from the Kurdish mountains Jeremiah loved so much. Cold snow tumbled down from the frozen sky, thunder and lightening grumbled in displeasure, and grey clouds brooded over Kurdistan with their gloomy presence for several days.A winter storm so late in the year is strange. From ancient times, strange events are reported to accompany the death of great men, from Julius Caesar to Jesus Christ.  Truly, a great man did pass from us.

One thing that made Jeremiah great is his love for forgiveness. He saw himself as a much-forgiven man. I keep hearing how whenever he realized his wrongness on something, he didn’t tarry to apologize. Sometimes he wasn’t even wrong. I found he grew up in a family where apologies and forgiveness were highly prized. His parents and some of his siblings flew out to Kurdistan to bury their son and brother. The memorial service was filled with an unusual quality, for victim of a murder – forgiveness. The teen’s family was invited to the service. Mom, brothers, and his dad all voiced the same anti-bitterness medicine. Dad said this was a momentary act by a confused young man, and repeated his goodwill towards the family. When they left the podium, the teen’s father came to the front and embraced them. I’ve never witnessed anything like this. It redefined love and reconciliation.

But its touching benefit was for the living. That day they buried Jeremiah. I regret I wasn’t able to attend that one, needing to go back to my place of work.

Regrets are haunting. I have many. I wish I had a chance to get to know him more. We were both so busy. I had hoped to see him during the Nawroz holiday now upon us, where all the schools in Kurdistan let out for two weeks. So much for that.  Yet I can hear his deep, kind voice saying those pleasant things if I concentrate.

I don’t know how much of this post is nonsense. This is grieving. I just miss him. I will miss our authentic conversations. The way he was with kids. His smile. His voice. Everything. Times that I’ve seen him run through my mind like a movie. Tragedy like this makes you think. Death means “over” in our experience. The dead are gone. No more of their presence and all that goes along with it.

But two thousand years ago in the mourning of another dead man, Jesus told the mourners he himself was resurrection and life. Those who believe in him will live again (John 11.25). Tall claims. But what hopeful claims, no? These humanist platitudes of “death is a part of life” and “at least he lived (once)” are idiotic to me. How is that hopeful? May as well say nothing. Put a bow-tie on a rotting eel. Hope doesn’t accept death as the victor. Hope means death isn’t the end: Those who die can go right through death and out the other side to a new kind of life, one that is eternal. Jeremiah firmly  believed in that hope. His conviction was that his dead bones will rise yet again. That’s what made him the person he was. He believed he had a heavenly future. So he lived as though he were a heavenly man.

Yet meanwhile, I lament that this heavenly personage has left us. It’s all a fool like me has to do I guess… Except maybe to be inspired by his life.Image

A memorial video made by a student