Christianity, Islam, Marriage, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

End of the series/back to work

I have to get back focused on other things now, so no more posts from me.  If anyone found the prior posts useful and would like to see the rest, you can read it for free in the kindle library , or if you like paper I published at the minimum allowed price. Especially in these times, when so many people seem to be citing God as the sponsor of hatred and violence, I think it is important to counter the nonsense that confuses people into accepting that sort of thing, and bring all of what Mohammed called “the People of the Book”, his approving term for anyone who followed an uncorrupted version of  Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, back to an understanding of God as a loving being who gives us all what we need generously and freely if we will only take the time and focus to find it, asking nothing in return, but who cannot force us to be good. We must each work to learn to feel pleasure in doing the right thing, which is to do good for all God’s creatures and to participate in the love that is God. The message is simple. It only needs a book full of explanations because people have been so determined to complicate it and distort it to serve their own ends.

Love and peace to all.


Christianity, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Good Works – Doing the Right Thing for the Wrong Reason

Different Christian sects differ on the importance of doing good works in the process of salvation, but I believe this is due to a lack of common understanding as to the nature and purpose of good works. Can a person do good and charitable things throughout their life and still not achieve heavenly bliss? Yes. Can a person achieve heavenly bliss without doing good and charitable things? No. Good works are a symptom of faith, so that any person who has faith and virtue will do them, but good works are not in themselves virtue. It is possible, and indeed common, to do the right thing for the wrong reason.

How can there be a wrong reason for doing a good act? Again, one must recall the nature of heavenly bliss and of faith. To achieve bliss you must have enough faith to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing, not because you expect any kind of reward. If I give hours each day and much of my earnings to charity because I will be fussed over and admired by other people, then I am acting like Contracting Connie. I will not be enjoying the acts themselves, but rather will be suffering through them in order to get an external reward from other people. The character of Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens’s Bleak House, who devotes herself to prominent charitable causes while seriously neglecting her own children, is a notable example of this breed. If I give ten percent of my earnings to the church because a minister has told me that unless I do I will be cast into a lake of fire, then I am just trying to avoid punishment rather than receiving enjoyment from the knowledge that I have done a good thing. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason is better than doing the wrong thing, but it will not lead to the ability to feel heavenly bliss. We must learn to feel enjoyment just because we have done a good thing, even if we receive no gratitude or admiration at all.

Should you encourage your children to do good works even if they don’t (at least at first) want to? Helping someone just to avoid being scolded by your parents is doing the right thing for the wrong reason, so a child cannot necessarily be expected to achieve virtue this way. However, being persuaded to do a good act can help the child to achieve real virtue by giving them a chance to experience the good feelings that flow from good actions, so that at some future opportunity they may be more inclined to do the good thing simply because it is good. The task for a parent, then, is to try to help the child to enjoy performing the good action. The child must understand why it is good, and should be helped to see the beneficial effects of the action on the person or animal that they are helping. The act should not be referred to as a “sacrifice”, but should be celebrated as an enjoyable activity (“wasn’t it nice to see how she cheered up when you helped her?”). Such little steps, though they may be initiated by the parent rather than by the child’s own desire to do good, can help to lead a child to the point where she no longer needs the parental prodding. Of course, if the parent performs good works and discusses the good feeling that they produce, the lesson will likely be more convincing than if the parent simply sends the child off to help a neighbor while the parent watches a football game.

Should a grownup force herself to go out and do good works? Perhaps, but just as with a child it should be done with a view to learning to do the right thing for the right reason. If you think back over the past year and discover that you have made very little effort to help others, then you should use your prayer time to examine your priorities and to seek the degree of faith that will enable you to want to spend time helping others. Then, forcing yourself to overcome your inertia by simply making up your mind that you are going to go and do some good deed will help you to put that faith into action. In this way, you will be doing the right thing for something pretty close to the right reason, and you will likely find that you rapidly begin to take real pleasure in doing good deeds. On the other hand, if you simply feel embarrassed because you feel that people expect you to be doing some good deeds, and so you look around for some easy ones to satisfy the obligation, you will be unlikely to progress in virtue. The key is to keep in mind the goal of doing virtuous actions for virtue’s sake, and of learning to draw pleasure from the act of doing good itself.[1]

Should adults be pressured by others to do good works? We need to be very careful here. Consider the effects of the typical American United Way campaign. Most Americans are generous, and unless they are desperately poor (and often even if they are desperately poor) they will seek to donate to worthy causes without prodding. Employers and organizations, though, like to boost their reputation in the community by harnessing the giving of their employees or members into a campaign in the organization’s name. If the company or organization does that the right way, it’s a great thing. They can make it easy for employees to give by payroll deduction, they can increase the power of giving by providing matching gifts, and they can make it easier to spend time on charitable works or provide funds for charitable endeavors. The problem comes when they have “100% participation” campaigns where employees are pressured to give. This taints the charitable impulses. Gifts that were freely and anonymously given just for the pleasure of giving now become an obligation where one’s name is checked off on a list. Similarly, celebrating givers, rather than celebrating gifts, can shift a selfless impulse into a selfish one, replacing simple joy in giving with pleasure in being recognized and admired for giving. Corruption is a subtle thing, and we must be ever-vigilant to keep it from undermining virtue.

[1] It is interesting to see, as I write this, that Word’s grammar check thinks that I am unlikely to mean “doing good”, but does not raise any question on the phrase “doing well”. Apparently we spend much more time discussing our competitive performance than we do discussing doing good works. That should not be true.

Conversations starters in the media – In addition to Bleak House, an episode of WKRP in Cincinnati called Jennifer and Johnny’s Charity does a nice job on this one. More generally, Buffy the Vampire Slayer does a great job of illustrating doing the right thing for the right reasons; our heroes get no thanks or respect from their peers and get in trouble with the adults, but do the right thing simply because it needs doing.

Christianity, Islam

The Trouble With Islam

First, let me say that I am only comfortable making these observations because in Sura 2.76 through 2.79, 3.7, and 3.78, among other places, Muhammad makes it clear that the Quran, together with the Torah and Gospel, is Islam, and that the additional “revelations” that people may contribute are highly suspect. So, a person like me who reads the Quran is entitled to form a valid opinion. Second, I want to note that as a Christian I have no fundamental problem with the notion that Muhammad may have been chosen as God’s prophet to the Arabic people and, through them, to others. The Prophet specifically renounces any divinity in himself, and he professes that the Gospel is Truth. He accepts that Christ was born of the Virgin Mary by God’s divine act, to carry God’s message and play out the role described in the Gospels. His only real quarrel with mainstream Christian theology is with the notion of the Trinity and Christ’s equality with God. Muhammad was reacting against Gnostic theology and other religious notions that proposed co-gods that should be worshiped, so he was quite emphatic that nobody should say that God has “helper” gods. He logically argues that God was in the beginning and that Christ was His creation, begotten or not, and that Christ thus exists at the will of God, cannot oppose or add to God, and is not necessary to God’s operations. I don’t think that a Christian needs to disagree with any of that, because it is perfectly reasonable to view Christ, who achieved perfect alignment with God, as being part of God without quibbling about the Trinity, which even in core doctrine is officially a Mystery. Muhammad apparently felt the same way, since he specifically accepts Christians that properly follow the Gospel as being proper Muslims. The two are consistent.

I read the Quran in order to fact-check the American commentators that have been asserting that Islam is an inherently violent religion. That assertion is wrong. The Quran does have passages, mostly written when the Prophet was in Medinah and trying to work up support to go and take Mecca, that indicate that God will condemn those who fail to fight bravely in His cause. See, for example, Sura 4, which contains a number of verses encouraging fighting against the enemies of faith. Overall, though, along with repeatedly endorsing the Gospel and Jesus, the Quran discourages fighting and vengeance. Thus, while Sura 4.89 says to catch and kill oppressors of Faith, 4.90 then goes on to forbid killing anyone who offers credible assurances that they will not fight. Sura 5.28 through 5.32 tells the pacifist story of the sons of Adam, “If you raise your hand against me to kill me, then it is not for me to raise my hand against you to kill you, for I fear Allah. I intend to let you take upon yourself my sin as well as yours, for you will be among the companions of the Fire.” Killing is banned save for those who murder “or do mischief in the land”, i.e. those who actively oppress the faithful.

The Quran does dictate that Muslims should not tolerate people preventing them from practicing their faith, and should do whatever is necessary to stop them from such interference. Remember, though, that the Quran classifies Christians as Muslims, and so gives Christians the same dictate. A great many professed Christians would be pleased to follow Muhammad’s dictate to overthrow, by violence if necessary, anyone who sought to suppress their faith. I think Jesus Himself would demand more caution as to means – “put away your sword” – but Christians are really not in a position to criticize Islam for this dictate. The Quran does not endorse the harming of innocent civilians, it expressly bans the killing of any believer including proper Jews and Christians, and it counsels mercy and giving even active oppressors a chance to reconsider and change their hearts.

Islam, then, is not inherently violent, and indeed is much less violent in general than the Old Testament. (The Wahhabi version of Islam backed globally with Saudi money is a different story; here I am speaking to Islam as authorized by The Book, not to that bloody-minded offshoot.) The problem with Islam is not inherent violence. Further, while it is unfortunate that the Quran is written against a background where slavery, including sexual slavery, was considered okay (though it indicates that freeing slaves is a good act of charity), I think we can put that in the context of the time and place it was written, and state that modern Muslims should know better.

The real problem with Islam is not these things, but rather is its vision of God. The Quran repeatedly states that people can only find salvation if Allah wills it, that Allah could will it for everyone if He chose, and that seeking salvation is hopeless if Allah does not feel like letting you get there. See, for example, Sura 6.110 through 6.112, 45.23, and 57.22. Further, the Quran, unlike the Bible, is very wrapped up in visions of hell, in which the damned are subjected to creative and very nasty tortures for ever and ever. This, we are told, is just, because the damned chose to stray from The Path. However, again, the damned can’t choose to stay on The Path unless Allah feels like it, so while they did wrong they did wrong under Allah’s supervision. Does that really merit infinite torture? This, to me, is a vision if a very large bully playing “why are you hitting yourself?” on an eternal scale, which I can’t believe is an accurate reflection of God.

The Quran instructs people to pray to and worship Allah several times a day, to never even consider setting up the idea of “helper gods”, to make the pilgrimage, to follow a few specific rules, and to practice charity, a notion that appears to fold in other broad concepts of honor, virtue and niceness. Charity and virtue, however, are not emphasized as being the core of what it is all about. Worshiping the Big Guy is, and realizing that He is the only one who can help you or hurt you is the key, and a great deal is made of the destruction of Sodom, Noah’s flood, the drowning if the Pharaoh’s army, etc. to emphasize that Allah will wipe out those who refuse to believe, along with then torturing them for eternity.

This is a vision that makes it easy to accept killing innocents to promote the greater glory of God. Allah wipes people out without much qualm. Allah has them tortured forever. Allah rewards anyone who was collateral damage by giving them nice gardens with lots of good food and drink forever. So, what’s the big deal if you kill a bunch of people?

Now, all of the Old Testament wrath stories are in the Christian Bible, and many Christian sects are big on the notion of fiery tortures in hell. Calvin taught that government should ruthlessly suppress the ungodly so that they would not interfere with the Elect, and Martin Luther told the German emperor to use the guns on unruly Christians. So, Christianity is not immune from these flaws. As I explain in Christianity Made Simple, however, the real message of Christianity is quite different. God does not seek to have people worship Him out of vanity; He wants to have people seek virtue. God does not condemn people to tortures in hell as punishment; He allows Free Will so that people may find bliss in virtue, and the necessary side effect of that choice is that people may instead follow spiraling, insatiable desires that are themselves the tortures of hell – not a punishment, but a condition chosen by those who failed to learn to find pleasure in virtue. God does not grant favors to those who ask nicely enough in prayer. God gives all what they need without asking, and prayer is merely the process of finding what you have already been given. Christianity rightly understood, then, does not lend itself to hatred or slaughter. However, very many Christians do not understand their own religion.

On the other hand, I would argue that many Muslims have gotten past the problems with the Quran and have come to rightly understand their religion. They realize that Allah, who sent Jesus, wants us to be loving, peaceful and kind. They realize that because Allah is goodness, worship of Allah is not like worship of some vain king, but rather is done by focusing the mind on virtue and kindness. They realize that the boiling water and putrid wound-ooze of the Quran’s hell is just a metaphor for the self-inflicted torture of insatiable Want suffered by those who fail to learn to take pleasure in virtue, and likewise that the cool gardens of heaven are a way of suggesting the pleasures felt by those who learn to find bliss in virtue, rather than really being a place of endlessly entertaining varieties of fruit. The Quran, like the Bible, must use earthly metaphors for that which we cannot truly envision.

There is no inherent conflict between Islam and Christianity. Muhammad was correct in saying that those who truly understand are all following the same religion and all have God’s approval. The problem, as Muhammad correctly noted, is that people are so frustratingly willing to fail to understand a simple message. Be good and kind to your fellow creatures. Avoid sinful, insatiable wants and learn to take pleasure in loving others and doing good for them. Realize that doing the right thing simply because it is right is the only acceptable choice, and that “right” is best seen by its effect on others. It is not that complicated. Christianity Made Simple applies equally well to Islam. If God thought it was complicated he would have made us all a lot smarter. We just need to try harder to do what our hearts try to tell us is right.