THE RENAISSANCE OF MY LIFE: A Journey From Exclusive Faith to Enlightened Inclusiveness



Who does not love irony? Only those who can’t see it.

The following Preface is an edited version of the preface for The Empathy Imperative (soon to be republished as The Best of All Possible Gods).

My primary purpose in writing the novel was to demonstrate society’s disconnect between its sense of justice, mercy, and benevolence, and its theistic religious beliefs. Too, I wanted to suggest what the world might look like if the sentiment of universal empathy replaced self-interest, xenophobia, and domination (power) as our primary motivating force.

The Best of All Possible Gods

A revision of The Empathy Imperative

By Max T. Furr


In 1960, Bible study was offered as an elective in my public high school, and I, desiring 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 and range of complexions 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.

For me, there was no alternative but to believe such propositions because the fundamentals of the Judeo-Christian faith were what I was taught to believe from my diaper days. By the time I reached high school, I was vaguely aware of other religions through various derogatory comments I’d heard and condescending movies I saw, but that was as far as it went.

Perhaps, had an objective world religions course been offered in my school, my natural curiosity would have spurred my interest, but there was no such course. As for human evolution, it was never mentioned in biology or Earth Science. It was poetic irony, then, that my first serious theological doubt emerged from reading the Bible and thinking about what I read.

Late one night, as I lay in my bed after a hearty round of supplications for understanding, I repeatedly opened the Revised Standard Version at random, expecting God to give me a message by way of the first verse upon which my eyes fell. I did indeed get a message, but apparently, it was not from God. The verse that grabbed my attention was Revelation 13:8.

And all the inhabitants of the earth shall worship [the Beast], everyone whose name was not written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the lamb that was slaughtered.

I’d been taught from tot-hood that I had a choice to follow the ways of righteousness and be rewarded with an eternity in blissful paradise or to follow the ways of wickedness and reap an eternity of unrelenting, burning torture.

Yet, try as I might to rationalize otherwise, the only interpretation I could grasp from the verse was 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 Bible teacher for a different interpretation of the verse. 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 reasonable humans to read.

I suppose the verse could have been interpreted as meaning the Book of Life was begun with the first human, and 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 world’s creation. Therefore, although the wording was different, predestination was still painfully clear.

For some time after that, 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 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, embarrassingly, 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 of a very different reality.

His knowledge of the Bible was greater than mine, his knowledge of other religions was far beyond mine, and his knowledge of evolution caught my ship of ignorance broadside.

Bertrand Russell, British philosopher and atheist, 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 then conclude, “So much the greater is the triumph of faith in nevertheless believing.”

Perhaps such sentiments are necessary to soothe the troubled minds of millions, but for me, there was something deeply objectionable about willful self-deception.

This aversion to intellectual dishonesty seriously weakened the walls of my theology and set me up for the final blow—my own reasoned argument.

Having noted my air of piety, an acquaintance 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 Hindus, 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 made to their heartfelt belief also applied to me.

The logic was clear; I had no more reason to believe I possessed the sacred truth than anyone else. I had grasped the indisputable fact that one’s religious beliefs have more to do with one’s happenstance of birth than with truth. People are most likely to believe the theology they were taught to believe by their parents, which is most often the predominant religion of the society into which they are born. And that belief is often unshakable for the rest of their lives.

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” as passionately as the Christians, how do I know I was taught the right one?

I decided that very morning to place my faith in abeyance and view it with an objective eye. I would return to school as soon as possible 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 noted philosophers.

During this process, 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 all-loving, all-powerful and 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, 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 craw where it festered. I recall thinking about the human condition, the wars, the hungry masses, the disease-infested children, and the horrors humans inflict on their fellow humans and concluding Leibniz’s best possible world speculation 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 He would want to alleviate at least the depth of suffering, especially that of children. If He is omnipotent, 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. The final possibility is that He does not exist.

It was against Leibniz’s best-world view that I debated with my classmates throughout college and about which I began to write, post-college.

As I began writing and, considering again the best-world proposition, I realized that neither I nor anyone with whom I 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? Too, if this isn’t the best world possible, what would a better world look like, and how could it be achieved. This question formed the seed from which this novel grew.

I do not presume that this story 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 or humanistically, a better world is possible, just not in my lifetime.

I am well aware of considerable controversy in scripture analysis and translation, but my thrust is not to make arguments of interpretation. It is rather to demonstrate that theologically, 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—and by extension, the god of Judaism and Islam, Yahweh—was not the best of all possible gods.

A note of interest for the Christian true believer: when the Time of Sorrows begins, Professor Hale is a politically astute atheist and determinist (cause and effect—fate without supernatural guidance), explained in a thought soliloquy in the first chapter of part 1 as he attempts to avoid dealing with three unsavory events: the death of his estranged fundamentalist father, romantic indecision, and the onset of a nationwide political purge of liberal professors.

For the politically inclined reader, chapters two and three set up the political environment, 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 intensified by what appears to be the beginning of the biblical Tribulation—the Time of Sorrows. The political theme mingles with theology and philosophy throughout part 1.

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.

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.

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 do 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 that brings the true nature of justice, mercy, and love into sharp focus.  What would the world be like if universal empathy, not self interest, were our primary motivating force?

john pavlovitz

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