Saturday, June 25, 2011

Be your own person

Following the crowd
Growing up in my family, we were encouraged to exercise wise judgment. Whenever we were begging for permission to follow the crowd, instead of saying “No,” my mother would ask us, “If everyone jumped off the bridge, would you?” 

Trail BC bridge crossing the Columbia River
Since we lived near the fast flowing Columbia River with its dangerous undercurrents, jumping off the bridge was paramount to suicide.

My mother’s metaphor was clear. Sometimes bad things happen when you run with the pack. Be your own person.

My mother was very clever. Her question was annoying because our answer determined the outcome. Our impatient reply was always, “Of course not.” With that answer, we had sealed our fate; it meant that we did not have a good argument for our case. There was no need for Mom to say no. We had said no to ourselves. We had monitored our behavior before we had any opportunity to get into mischief.

Some of the young people involved in the recent Vancouver riot could have benefitted from repeated exposure to my mother’s question. If they had the self-control to monitor their behavior, they could have saved themselves and their families the heartache of their bad choices and the consequences of their criminal acts.

A scene from the Vancouver riot 2011

An unfortunate example
Take the unfortunate example of one rioter. A 17-year-old elite athlete, he was poised to attend university on a scholarship for water polo. He was captured on camera in what appears to be an attempt to ignite a police car on fire.

This young man turned himself into police, asked the court’s permission to waive his right as a minor to keep his identity anonymous, and made a remorseful public apology. He apologized first to his parents, saying that his actions do not reflect the lessons and values they have taught him. He accepts responsibility and is anxious to restore his reputation.

This rioter said that he was caught up in the moment. After having jumped off the bridge, he is trying to swim back to shore.

He is feeling some very unpleasant consequences because of his poor judgment. He has been publicly shamed and threatened on social media sites to such an extreme degree that his family had to leave their home. He has been provisionally suspended from the national water polo team. He missed his high school graduation.

Missing a high school graduation may not sound like much of a consequence, but high school graduation is a milestone in the lives of almost every young adult. It marks the passage from childhood to adulthood, and is a time of recognition and celebration.
The young rioter and his family had a lot to celebrate. He had a particular set of skills that had put him on a path towards the Olympics. Not many graduates can say that.

What's in the toolbox?
All graduates, though, have a set of skills that they have developed over the years. They leave high school with an impressive set of tools designed to help them achieve success in the world. All will have basic skills in literacy, numeracy, and technology. Some will have tailored their skills according to their interests and abilities. They may have specialized skills in athletics, the arts, and leadership. The toolbox of skills that the graduates have assembled will help them build the future of their imagination.

In today’s competitive environment, it is easy to become overly focused on the skill set because the quality of the skills in the toolbox has an influence on success. Parents are understandably anxious to provide opportunities for their children that might give them a bit of an edge in the world. Graduates are naturally focused on their future goals and strive hard to achieve them.

With society’s emphasis on fame and fortune, some may overlook the importance of a strong moral-ethical character, placing greater emphasis on a person’s marketable skills. But character matters in life. All the tools in the box need to be branded with personal integrity. An individual’s toolbox is incomplete if it lacks traits like self-control, honesty, faithfulness, respect, and good judgment.

The situation of the young rioter in the example above illustrates the point that my mother tried to impress on my sisters and me as teens. Choices have consequences. Let your choices reflect who you are, and not the character of the crowd. If you get caught up in the moment, you might regret jumping off the bridge. It’s a long fall, the water’s cold, and the swim back to shore, against the current of negative consequence, is exhausting.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Evidence for God

Ads ruffle feathers 
A recent ‘No God’ campaign ruffled some feathers in Kelowna, BC. ‘No God’ campaign ads read, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The ads are installed on the sides of city buses.

The ‘No God’ campaign originated in London, England in 2009, and spread throughout Europe and North America. The campaign has been repeated periodically since then in various cities around the world.

Some Christians feel threatened with the ‘No God’ campaign. Two of the Kelowna ads vanished into thin air. Maybe the vanishing act was an act of God, a divine attempt to prove God’s existence. More likely, it was an act of vandalism perpetrated by an annoyed Christian.

Other Christians like the campaign. The ads promote discussion around kitchen tables, in lunchrooms, and over a beer in the local pub. The ads get people talking because they raise good questions.

“There’s probably no God,” suggests some uncertainty. “Stop worrying,” suggests a particular image of God. “Enjoy your life” focuses attention on values and happiness.

"There's probably no God"
“There’s probably no God.” Here is a point of connection between theists and atheists. The connection is doubt about beliefs. Neither the theist nor the atheist can definitively prove their position according to scientific method.

Both will use their own version of apologetics, or reasoned argument, to prove their position. Apologetics are unlikely to convert either a staunch theist or atheist, although a carefully crafted argument may influence someone who is undecided, searching, or disillusioned. The ‘No God’ ad campaign is a sort of apologetic tweet.

The Christian evidence for God is experiential. We encounter God personally in the events and people of our lives, historically in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and traditionally through the witness of the past. We also encounter God’s presence in the complexity, interdependence and beauty of creation and in the marvels that science continues to reveal.

Blaise Pascal (b.1623- d.1622)

None of this is hard evidence for the existence of God. My experience of God will not prove God’s existence to someone else. Belief depends on faith experience, and on choice. In his famous piece on the existence of God, the French philosopher and mathematician Pascal concluded that belief is a wager between two choices. Belief is a wager for the proposition, “There probably is a God.”

"Stop worrying"
“Stop worrying.” The image we have of God influences our relationship to God, to other, and to the environment. Often humanity’s image of God is androcentric. God becomes like man, instead of man becoming holy like God. God becomes a powerful and tyrannical male ruler. God is the tough taskmaster, waiting to crack the whip every time humans mess up.

If this is our image of God, our relationships are diminished as we seek to lord it over others. The environment becomes a source for personal gain and is no longer treated as a life-giving source for the common good.

If we relate to God as a tough taskmaster, then we have a lot to worry about. When we see God as a loving creator who nurtures humanity, and who calls every individual to holiness, there is no need for worry; our only need is to make ourselves more like this God. So, “stop worrying.”

"And enjoy your life"
“And enjoy your life.” What makes people happy? Is the purpose of life essentially pleasure? Is belief in God incompatible with happiness and the enjoyment of life?

Psychologists have come to some conclusions about happiness. The hedonistic pursuit of pleasure, wealth, or power does not ensure happiness. Happiness comes from being connected with family, friends and community, from having enough financial means to live with dignity, and from a sense of self, values and purpose.

There is a transcendent element to happiness, a spiritual element that takes the individual beyond the self and its every whim. The way to enjoy life is to get beyond one’s ego.

If people connect belief in God with unhappiness, Christians may be responsible. Maybe we are Christian in name but not in practice; we talk the talk, but do not walk the walk. Maybe our lives fail to reflect the love that comes from Christ.

The most convincing evidence for the existence of God is an authentic believer whose life proclaims God with fidelity and joy.

“There’s probably no God.” “There’s probably a God.” Place your wager.