Irony! Who does not love irony?
It occurred to me this morning that I needed to post the story of my transformation, upon which irony played no small role. I’ve said a lot about empathy on this blog and how religious exclusiveness is the major obstacle to world peace. But, how did I get to this point and why did I, having been raised to be a strong Christian, leave it behind?
When I wrote the novel, The Empathy Imperative, my primary purpose was to demonstrate society’s disconnect between its sense of justice, mercy, and benevolence, and some of its religious beliefs. Too, I wanted to suggest what the world might look like were empathy to replace self-interest as our primary motivating force. If one seriously contemplates such a world, it should call into focus the lyrics of John Lennon’s, “Imagine.”
Because the novel can be, to varying degrees, disconcerting to those who hold their religiosity close to their hearts and remain faithful by rejecting all other beliefs, I decided to incorporate my personal transformation in the preface of The Empathy Imperative as a means of explaining my purpose for basing the story on biblical literality. What would it take, theologically, to achieve world peace?
I look forward to any comments you may have.
In 2008, the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) aired the BBC/WGBH Boston production, God On Trial. It is a play, written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, based on an event told by Elie Wiesel in his book, The Trial of God. It is a story about a group of Jews, imprisoned at Auschwitz, a Nazi death camp, holding court and trying God in absentia.
The charge was that God broke His covenant in allowing Hitler to commit genocide against them. In testimony, they deal with questions of justice and purpose (e.g., if God is just, then why does He allow, not just suffering, but also suffering on a scale such as the inhuman savagery of the Holocaust?).
It is a powerful and riveting play so well written and with such passionate acting, one hardly notices nearly the entire story takes place within one room.
I began writing The Empathy Imperative long before this play aired, and found, once having seen it, that many of the questions raised in the film I had included in the pages of this book, although in greater depth and with a different verdict. They are profound questions that test the parameters of our view of God’s justice, mercy and benevolence, in contrast with our own. What is justice? Is our sense of justice good, such that God, Himself, approves? Is divine justice something other than what we believe to be just?
The Empathy Imperative, like God on Trial, is a theological and philosophical exploration, but goes further in suggesting what would be theologically necessary to move our world into a future where empathy, not personal gain, is our primary motivating force.
The questions addressed in the following pages are a source of consternation in the minds of many, often exposing popular but strongly held contradictory views. It is no easy matter for one to examine, with objectivity, the religious “truth” he or she was taught as a child, especially those propositions deeply believed by the society in which one lives. Nevertheless, it is something that I feel must be done if we are to move beyond the walls of sectarianism, and view the world with understanding, compassion, and reason.
My journey beyond those walls began during my high school years when Bible class was offered as an elective, and I, desirous to be counted among the faithful, faithfully elected to attend. Having been raised a Bible believing, saved-by-perseverance Methodist, I had no doubt that God was in His heaven, that Adam was the first human being, that one of his ribs was appropriated to fashion his helpmate, Eve, and that humankind came by its various languages in one fell swoop at the Tower of Babel. I believed, as well, that two representatives of every species of animal on earth held first class tickets to a cruise aboard the good ship, Noah’s Ark.
For me, there was no alternative but to believe such propositions, because the fundamentals of the Judeo-Christian faith were what I was taught from my diaper days. By the time I reached high school, I was vaguely aware of other religions by way of various derogatory comments I heard and condescending movies I saw, but that was about as far as it went.
Perhaps, had an objective, world religions course been offered in my high school, my natural curiosity would have spurred my interest, but I will never know, because there was no such course. As for human evolution, it wasn’t so much as mentioned in biology or earth science.
It was with poetic irony, then, that my first serious doubt emerged from reading the Bible and thinking about what I was reading.
Late one night after a hearty round of supplications, I was repeatedly opening the Revised Standard Version at random, expecting God to give me a message by way of the first verse on which my eyes fell. I did indeed get a message, but, apparently, it was not from God. The verse that captured my attention was Revelation 13:8, which stated:
And all the inhabitants of the earth shall worship [the beast], every one whose name was not written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the lamb that was slaughtered.
It was my first bout with an apparent conflict in my theology. There I was, a teen taught from tothood that I had a choice whether to follow the ways of righteousness and be rewarded with an eternity of blissful paradise, or to follow the ways of wickedness and reap an eternity of unrelenting torture.
Yet, try as I might to rationalize otherwise, the only interpretation I could deduce from the verse was that of predestination. If that were so, I reasoned, then God knew before the existence of humans, that most of them would be destined to eternal agony, no matter how good they may have strived to be.
“Why would God,” I asked myself, “condemn souls to Hell before they were born?”
The next day, I prodded the teacher for a different interpretation. After a thoughtful pause she replied, “We’re not supposed to know everything.” I was taken aback, as I had expected a bit more than a dodge, but I accepted it. Her answer, however, gave birth to another question. I wondered why a perfect god would not be perfectly clear in words He inspired someone to write and for us to read.
I suppose the verse could have been interpreted as meaning the Book of Life was begun with the first human, then each name was added as each person came into existence and demonstrated he was worthy of salvation. However, that would be salvation through works, not through grace, and it would cause a problem with the King James Version of the same verse, which states:
And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.
This verse seemed to say the “Lamb”—taken to mean, “Jesus”—was destined to be slain from the creation of the world. Thus, although the wording was different, predestination was still painfully clear.
For some time thereafter, I pondered and prayed, reread the chapter, and pondered some more. In time, I moved on, but the questions remained resident in my mind.
Not long after high school graduation, I found myself in Army Basic Training. One afternoon on a weekend as I lay on my bunk reading, some friends who knew me to be a devout Christian came in and asked me to assist them in a debate they were having with a professed atheist.
Never one to miss an opportunity to proselytize, I donned my godly armor of faith and sallied into battle. With my friends gathered around, I dodged and ducked every salvo of my foe’s arguments, and responded with my own volleys of piety and scripture. The end of the battle came with a total rout—mine.
Thoroughly shaken, I laid out a smokescreen prophesying divine retribution for my faithless adversary, and withdrew from the battle. Hastily applying a sturdy brain-splint of seasoned prayer, I retreated for weeks into mental convalescence.
It had been my first contact with the enemy, and he had come to the field of battle with an awesome weapon entirely new to me—well reasoned, evidence-based arguments.
His knowledge of the Bible was greater than my own, his knowledge of other religions was far beyond mine, and his knowledge of evolution caught my ship-of-ignorance broadside.
Bertrand Russell wrote of Pierre Bayle, French philosopher and critic in the late 17th century, that Bayle would compose lengthy arguments on the strength of reason over orthodox belief, but conclude, “So much the greater is the triumph of faith in nevertheless believing.”
Perhaps such sentiments are necessary to placate the troubled minds of a great many people, but for me, there was something deeply repugnant about willful self-deception.
It was this abhorrence for intellectual dishonesty that seriously weakened the walls of my theology and set me up for the final blow—my own, reasoned argument.
An acquaintance of mine, having noted my air of piety, invited me off post to dinner and conversation at his home. That evening, seated in his living room, he and two others engaged in a concerted effort to convert me to Mormonism. Among other arguments, they contended that baptism into the Mormon faith was necessary to achieve salvation.
Marveling at their confident posture, I asked, “How do you know you are right?”
“We know in our hearts we are right,” they replied.
“Yes,” I responded, “but so do the Jews, the Hindu, the Buddhists, the Muslims, and the Catholics. They all know in their hearts that they are right. Every person of every religion believes himself to be right.”
After dinner, having made no commitment, I thanked them for their hospitality and took my leave. Returning to the base that night, something was bothering me, the cause of which I could not ferret out.
When I awoke the next morning, the insight came in a flash. The rebuttal I had made in reply to their heartfelt belief that they were right, applied to me as well.
The logic was clear; I had no more reason to believe I possessed the sacred truth than did anyone else. I had grasped the indisputable fact that one’s religious beliefs have more to do with happenstance of birth than with truth. A person is most likely to believe the theology taught by his parents, which is most often the predominant religion of the society into which he is born, and that belief is often unshakable for the rest of his life.
A cascade of questions followed, the foremost of which was: Could there be a good and compassionate god who condemns billions of souls to eternal torture for having been taught to believe the wrong religion? Since adherents to other faiths believe their “truths” every bit as passionately as the Christian believes his, how do I know I was taught the right one?
I decided, therefore, to place my faith in abeyance and view my beliefs with an objective eye. I would return to school and acquire a much wider breadth of knowledge so vital for sound reasoning.
I vowed to study with an open mind, and follow the arguments to their logical conclusion. I promised myself that I would accept the conclusion no matter how uncomfortable it might make me feel, for if I refused to do so, I would live a life of intellectual dishonesty.
Throughout the ensuing years, I applied a strong dose of reason to each of my attempts to fashion a new theology.
In pursuit of truth, I opened my mind to philosophy, world religions and evolution. I read and contemplated the arguments of current and past theologians, scholarly evolutionists and philosophers.
It was during this process that I came across a famous statement by the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716). In an attempt to reconcile the existence of evil with the idea that God is omnibenevolent (all loving), omnipotent (all powerful), and omniscient (all knowing), he suggested that God gave this world the best balance of all possibilities, good and evil. So that humans might act as free agents (possessors of free will), He gave us the ability to choose between the two. Therefore, Leibniz concluded, it must be that God blessed us with “the best of all possible worlds.”
Leibnitz’s proposition that this is the best world possible stuck in my mental craw where it festered. I recall thinking about the world; its wars, its hungry masses, its disease-infested children (what is more innocent than a child?), the horrors humans inflict on their fellow humans, and concluding that Leibniz’s best possible world conjecture was demonstrably false.
It was the age-old philosophical conundrum: If God is omniscient, then He knows of the intolerable suffering of billions of people through no fault of their own. If He is omnibenevolent, then it is reasonable to suppose that He would want to alleviate at least the depth of suffering. If He is omnipotent, then He could act on His desire. He does not alleviate the depth of suffering.
Therefore, either He is not omnipotent, and can do nothing about suffering, or He is not omniscient and does not know humans suffer, or He is not omnibenevolent as most of the world, astonishingly, thinks Him to be.
It was against this best-world proposition that I debated through my college years, but my post-college profession in quality management occupied so much of my time and raised my level of stress to such a degree that little time or inclination was left to ponder this primary interest.
In time, out of concerns for my health, I resigned from that profession, and eventually became a long haul, professional driver. This occupation appreciably lowered my level of stress and allowed me the time I needed to read and ponder my philosophical and theological interests.
It was early in this new career, while again considering the best-world proposition, that I realized neither I, nor anyone with whom I had debated, thought to ask the obvious questions: If this is not the best of all possible worlds, then could it be that we do not have the best of all possible gods? In addition, if this isn’t the best world possible, then what would a better world look like and how could we get there?
These are the questions about which I began to research and write, and which The Empathy Imperative attempts to answer.
I do not presume to believe this book constructs the best of all possible worlds or gods, and indeed, I am sure it does not. But I do not need to construct the best of either. I just need to demonstrate that, theologically, better gods and better worlds are possible.
Since any such qualitative construct necessarily deals with ethics and justice, I must deal with questions relevant to the omniperfection of God, and it is with this discussion that I feel a word to the wise reader is necessary.
For the purpose of this exploration, I began by assuming the King James Authorized Version (AV) of the Bible was literally true—both the Old and New Testaments.
Obviously, I had to deal with some misinterpretations and inconsistencies in the scriptures, while at the same time trying to remain true to the fundamentalists’ view that the entire Bible is the infallible word of an infallible god. This struggle becomes evident in the progression of the narrative.
I am well aware of considerable controversy in matters of scripture analysis and translation, but my thrust is not to make arguments of interpretation. It is rather to demonstrate that, again theologically speaking, a better world could have been created, and if a better world could have been created, then it follows that the god of the Bible, Yahweh, was not the best of all possible gods.
Therefore, in order for the astute student of theology to appreciate the point of the book, he will need to suspend his urge to fractious debate over scriptural interpretation, and tentatively accept my general premise that this is not the best of all possible worlds.
As for the version of the Bible, I chose the King James because it was the one believed and preached by the lead character’s father, and because it was the version with which most Christians were familiar, at least during my early years of study.
Another note of interest for the Christian true believer—when the Time of Sorrows begins, the lead character, Professor Mark Jefferson Hale (Jeff), is a politically aware, evolutionary biologist, and a causal determinist.
Jeff’s view of strict, causal determinism (cause and effect) is explained in the second chapter of part 1 as he attempts to avoid dealing with a culmination of unsavory events—the foremost being the death of his estranged, fundamentalist father—all the while struggling against a political purge, and romantic ambivalence.
To the Jewish reader, you are already aware that I spell out sacred words. I do this because I feel it is necessary for the integrity and flow of the narrative.
For the politically inclined reader, chapters three and four set up the political condition of Jeff’s time, suggesting what might happen if the political pendulum did not swing back, but became immobile far to the right, caught up in an entanglement of corporate greed and religious fervor, triggered by the beginning of the Tribulation—the Time of Sorrows. This political theme mingles with theology throughout part 1.
Part 2 begins an exploration into our view of the nature of justice in relation to events described in the Old Testament, and in relation to the culmination of events described in prophesies.
I am sure many will say that I cannot judge the acts of God described in the Old Testament by modern, ethical standards, but they will be wrong.
I am exploring Judeo-Christian theology and embracing the popular notion that the god of the Old Testament is the same god of the New Testament whose being and temperament does not change.
I am proceeding with the idea that we believe our sense of morality and justice is good, and that it is God sanctioned. Therefore, in order to conduct this theological exploration honestly, I must view events in the Old Testament through the moral lens of modernity.
— Max T. Furr is author of The Empathy Imperative, a philosophical novel based on the epic struggle between religion and science, and brings the true nature of justice, mercy, and love into sharp focus. What would the world be like if empathy, not self interest, were our primary motivating force?