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What Would People Think?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

On God and Our Desires, or How I Learned to Stop Listening to Al Pacino and Love C.S. Lewis (Part 1)

(When I started writing this post over one year ago, I thought it wouldn't be that long. Then I realized I was writing a freakin' essay....and I couldn't find the time to finish it. I was trying to express two main points, and just last week, I finally found the time to finish writing my first point. So, after leaving my blog comatose for over a year, I've decided to go ahead and post the first part. Here's hoping I get around to the 2nd part. Also, I realize this thing is really long. If I post this in parts, maybe people will have time to read it.)

Two Quotes on the Relationship Between God and Our Desires

I begin with a quote from John Milton (a.k.a. Satan) from the movie The Devil's Advocate:

Let me give you a little inside information about God. God likes to
watch. He's a prankster. Think about it. He gives man instincts. He gives you this extraordinary gift, and then what does he do? I swear for his own amusement, his own private, cosmic gag reel, he sets the rules in opposition. It's the goof of all time. Look, but don't touch. Touch, but don't taste. Taste, don't swallow. Ahaha. And while you're jumpin' from one foot to the next, what is he doing? He's laughing his sick fuckin' ass off! He's a tight-ass! He's a sadist! He's an absentee landlord! Worship
that? NEVER!

And a quote from C.S. Lewis in his sermon, The Weight of Glory:

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised us in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
I want to use these two quotes as a launching point for this blog post (or, as it turns out, series of blog posts).

Many of my friends really like that first quote. I remember watching The Devil's Advocate in college and hearing friends who would cite (or at least perk up) for that line. They may just like the wittiness of it, or the audaciousness, or Al Pacino's delivery of the line. But I think there's more to it than that. I think the quote resonates with them. Even if they don't believe in the Judeo-Christian God, that's what they think Christianity teaches about our desires: that our desires are bad and should be suppressed. (Or as Jeff characterized the conservative attitude toward sex some time ago: "Sex is evil and dirty and should be avoided at all costs.") I remember countless jokes about the latest dumb thing said or done by a fundamentalist or someone from the Religious Right (or, sometimes, a terrorist) being the result of repressed sexuality. I don't think they believed that, but I do think they believe that Christianity teaches suppression and denial of one's desires, and that this is unnatural and unhealthy and joyless.

Obviously, I disagree. There are two points I want to make about what Christianity has to say about God and our desires. (If you're not a Christian, you can take what I write about what God does below to mean what Christians believe God does. Being a Christian, I obviously believe these things and I just don't feel like prefacing everything I say in this post with "Christianity teaches...".) The C.S. Lewis quote applies more to the second. But, as is numerically appropriate, I'll start with the first.

To preview, these are my two points: (1) God wants us to enjoy the good things of life. But we must enjoy them, in the way, and to the extent, that he has mandated. We must not love the created things (including pleasures) more than the Creator. (2) Although we must give up some of our freedom to do what want, what we get in return is joy and life lived to the fullest in a relationship with our Creator and Savior. The exchange is worth it.

(As it turns out, the 2nd point will have to wait for a later blog post. I've got an outline.)

Everything In Its Proper Place

Al Pacino's Satan is right about one thing: God did create in us these desires for stuff like, say, food and sex. He did so not to frustrate us, but because he meant for us to enjoy these things. Even the writer of Ecclesiastes - a melancholy guy if there ever was one, a guy who concludes everything under the sun is "meaningless! meaningless!" - still says "It is good for a man to eat and drink . . . When God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work - this is a gift of God."

But here's the rub, the thing people don't like: We are to enjoy these things in their proper time and place. And, above all, we are not to seek these good things over God. We should never love the created things more than the Creator.

Why? Because of the great danger of our desires ruling over us and harming us. People think - or at least our consumer culture implicitly teaches us - that indulging our desires whenever we want is the definition of freedom and happiness - in economic terms, that it can give us the most utility. It's not. More often, it's slavery - like a drug addiction. (As Paul put it in his letter to Titus: "At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures.") Actually, drug addiction is a pretty good analogy of our desires ruling over us. The addict desperately wants more cocaine or heroin or what have you, but that doesn't make it good for him/her. But even that analogy isn't perfect; I can't envision a scenario when heroin is ever a good thing in the first place.

A better example may be food. As the quote from Ecclesiastes above acknowledges, food is a good thing. It's a necessity and one of the great pleasures of life. (Don't believe that? You haven't tried Christy's cooking yet.) But, when indulged to excess, food can harm you. Excess of food can lead to everything from indigestion to heart disease to (in the case of a relative of mine) legs that are too weak to carry all that weight. When it gets to the point that your appetite controls you, food can actually be dangerous in the long term.

Sex is another example. Contrary to Jeff's characterization above, Christianity does not teach that sex is "evil and dirty." Rather, it is a beautiful expression of love that can even lead to the creation of new life. Nobody who reads the Song of Solomon, with its frank and joyous exploration of sexuality, can believe that the Bible teaches sex is inherently wrong. But it's also perfectly clear that the Bible tightly circumscribes when sex should be enjoyed (see, for instance, large portions of Leviticus). But isn't it obvious why? As theologian Frederick Buechner once put it: "Sex is like nitroglycerin; it can either be used to heal hearts or blow up bridges." Or, as a character puts it in the movie Kinsey (never thought I'd be citing that movie, did you?): "Sex is a risky game, because if you're not careful, it will cut you wide open." Sex can bring two people together into an intimate - and, yes, pleasurable - physical, emotional, and spiritual union. But it can also tear relationships apart, cause lasting emotional damage, and lead to STDs if indulged in the wrong way. Sex can be a cruel, controlling master. See the movie Auto Focus: In it, Greg Kinnear plays TV star Bob Crane (of "Hogan's Heroes" fame). Crane has almost daily sex with strangers. Sounds like fun? Not really. For Crane it's a compulsion. It wrecks 2 marriages, leads to increasingly reckless behavior, and ultimately destroys him. It's a portrait of desires ruling over the man.

"Okay," you might say. "So we shouldn't enjoy things to excess. So far you haven't told me anything that Epicureanism doesn't also teach. But why Christianity's distinct rules? Why listen to the Bible's mandates that, say, sex should only be enjoyed within the confines of marriage?" The best explanation I can give is the one I gave to a college acquaintance (Joe Wong, founder of The Slant) when he asked me that same question. What I said then is, "Well, when I want to figure out how a VCR works [hey, it was the year 2000! People still used VCRs back then. I still do.], I read the manual written by the people that made it. I figure the people that made the thing know best how it works. In the same way, I believe that God made me and knows best how I 'work.' Therefore, I will listen to Him and read His 'manual', the Bible, and seek to do what it says. That, I believe, will be most conducive to my happiness and the happiness of others." Well, okay, that wasn't my exact words. But that was my basic point.

And how does Christianity say we "work"? Augustine had the best framework for it, so I'll paraphrase him. Basically, Augustine taught that our loves need to be properly ordered. It's not that we should love God to the exclusion of everything and everyone else. It's not that we shouldn't enjoy food, sex, fresh air, a World Cup soccer game, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, our friendships, or any of the other wonderful things of this world. It's that we should love God first...and most. And then, in loving Him, we obey Him. In obeying Him, we follow his great commandment to "Love your neighbor as yourself." So we next love our fellow human beings and earnestly desire their good just as much as we desire our own good. After that, all our other "loves" fall into place....in their proper order, time, and place. When we love God, we are freed to love our neighbors and enjoy the pleasures of this world without being slaves to pleasure.

German theologian (you'll note I'm quoting a lot of theologians in this blog post....it's my new pastime) Helmut Thielicke took that concept of slavery to pleasure in a slightly different direction. We all serve a master. Much as we Americans love to say that nobody is our master, Thielicke argues it's not a matter of whether we serve, but whom we serve. We could serve God or we could serve our desires. We can choose which master to serve. One master (our desires....our idols, as he puts it) will make us slaves. The other (God) will make us children. He will adopt us into His family and then we will serve Him freely, out of love and gratitude.

Or, instead of quoting various Christian theologians, maybe I should just go back to the source of all their thoughts, Jesus. In His Sermon on the Mount, he concluded: "Seek first [God's] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."

Ultimately, we must let God rule over our desires, and not let our desires rule over us.

(Part 2 - entitled "The Exchange Is Worth It" - to follow...)

Monday, June 15, 2009

Robinson Everett

One of my favorite people in the world, my criminal procedure professor, Judge Robinson Everett passed away Friday morning. And one of my few remaining reasons for visiting my old law school on a whim goes with him.

Why is Judge Everett one of my favorite people in the world? It has nothing to do with his politics or his view of the law. I get the impression that he was much more conservative than me, but that never really came up in the time I knew him.

It's because of the kind of person he was. Judge Everett cheerfully and patiently mentored 5 decades' worth of Duke Law students. (He was both the youngest and oldest professor in Duke Law's history.)

Above all, Judge Everett was to me a model of grace. I mean that in the Biblical sense of undeserved favor. I'm aware of one of his friends and students who made some pretty terrible decisions, including embezzlement. Judge Everett stuck by him, defended him in his criminal case, and helped rehabilitate him after he served his sentence. I observed how he insisted on honest and upright behavior, and yet refused to abandon those who fell short. He didn't excuse wrong or criminal behavior, but he looked past it to see the fallen and hurting human beings.

I remember thinking "I want to be like Judge Everett when I grow up." I hope and pray that someday I can be half the man he was.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

You Want to Draw Your Own Opinion on Judge Sotomayor?

Then you should look at her opinions.

The ever-useful, and relatively unbiased, SCOTUS blog has summaries of her decisions here, here, here, here, and here.

That's a lot to read and, frankly, I haven't had the time to go through it all. But, from what I've read, I get the impression that she's a relatively unflashy left-of-center justice. Pretty much in the mold of the justice she'd be replacing.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Law Has Seen Better Days

In the news:

Supreme Court Encourages Police to Make An End Run Around A Suspect's Lawyer

President Claims Power to Detain People Indefinitely.....and is criticized for not being lawless enough.

On the other hand, the law's seen worse days. This new Supreme Court nominee looks promising.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Southern Baptist Convention Condemns Torture

I haven't considered myself a Southern Baptist for some time, partly because of the pronouncements of their national political spokesman, Richard Land. Normally, he can be counted on to say whatever annoys me most about the Religious Right and whatever confirms popular misconceptions of Evangelicals as a tool of the Republican party.

This makes me all the more thrilled that Land, speaking on behalf of the Southern Baptist Convention, has come out against torture and, specifically, waterboarding under any circumstances. Given that Land is right smack in the Religious Right, that's a courageous thing to say. He's going to be harshly attacked. Maybe this is a sign that a consensus is building against torture.

The money quote: "It does cost us something to play by different rules than our enemies, but it would cost us far more if we played by their rules."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Quick Thought On The Torture Memos

I've quickly glanced over the Torture Memos, the not-very-objective-but-still-accurate title given to the legal analyses by certain Bush Administration lawyers (i.e. John Yoo, Jay Bybee, Steven Bradbury) which were used to provide a legal cover for "enhanced interrogation techniques." Things like making someone stand in a stressful position for hours, sleep deprivation, extreme temperatures, putting someone in a tiny box with an insect (with the implication that the prisoner thinks it is poisonous) and waterboarding. No matter how much the memos try to dance around it, these things are torture.

I've glanced over the memos, but haven't analyzed them in detail. The thing about the memos that truly chills me to the core is the detached, clinical way they describe heinous acts and analyze whether they violate the law. This is the kind of language I use to analyze whether some company has committed an OSHA violation. This is the kind of language lawyers use to debate whether there has been a breach of contract.

This is not the language used to describe torture. I have to wonder what part of their soul these lawyers had to shut down to think and write like this.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

An Actual Conversation I Had At Work Today

My co-workers and I were discussing the anti-tax "Tea Parties" taking place around the nation. (The main effect on me being such nasty traffic in Atlanta that I worked from home for the afternoon.)

Me: "So should I go down to the protest and thank them for paying my salary?"

Co-Worker # 1: "I think they'd probably stone you."

Me: "Death by stoning. Not a great way to go. Think I'll get back to work instead."

Co-Worker # 2: "Actually, they'd probably stone you with tea bags."

Me: "So instead of death by stoning, it would be death by t......On second thought, I'm not finishing that sentence."

Laughter ensues. Then work ensues. Lots of drafting of legal documents. The day gets more boring from there.