Sunday, May 18, 2008

I believe in more Gods than you do

In my former life as a defense attorney, I was once sitting court waiting to enter a pretty good plea deal for a client who had behaved stupidly, as is usually the case. My client, Jerry, was whispering excitedly to me of his latest experience: he had been Saved.
I don’t suppose it will come as any surprise that small-town Georgia boys facing third DUI charge often find Jesus between arrest and trial. Jerry’s sudden enthusiasm for church going was not knew, nor was what came next, the invitation to come to his church next Sunday.
“I’m not much of a churchgoer,” I said. As a small-town southern lawyer and a small-town southern newspaperman, I usually stay quietly in my broom closet. Of course, when you are a middle-aged white man from a known “good” family and hold socially important jobs like lawyer or editor, it’s not hard to pass as a good Christian: as long as I don’t do anything extraordinarily weird, it’s taken for granted that I am of the tribe.
(Once a woman whose grandchildren I had just extracted from the machinery of the State threw her arms around me in the courtroom shouting “you’re such a good Christian Man.” I just patted her on the shoulder.
(Of course, she KNEW I was a Christian because I had accomplished a good thing and brought justice. She KNEW that only a real Christian could do that or would even try.)
Anyway back in Judge Campbell’s crowded courtroom, Jerry and I exchanged a few more muttered phrases as he tried to probe the state of my soul. Finally, he fixed me with a solemn glare and asked “You DO believe in GOD, don’t you?”
Just at that point, the bailiff hollered “All rise,” and that was the end of that. Possibly, this proves that some god -- my buddy, Hermes? -- was paying attention. I took care of Jerry, but he left without further discussion, and also without further payment. In the end he stiffed me for about $500.
But what about Jerry’s question: do I believe in “God?”
Notice that it’s a trick question, because the word “God” is being used both an abstract concept of deity, and, at the same time, as a proper name, the name of the Christian God, in fact. If you answer “yes,” you seem to be affirming a very specific and Abrahamic idea of what deity can be. If you say “no,” you seem to be denying any spiritual or religious truth at all.
This is approximately the same question asked by the much-publicized poll of last year that concluded that some huge percentage Americans “ believe in God.” But in that poll, as someone commented at the time, the only alternative to "God" was "None of the Above."
There is no room any god that is less than the unchallenged boss of the universe. No room pagans, polytheists and other weird types.
I used to answer people like Jerry by saying things like “I believe in at least as many gods as you do.” That made me feel very clever, but just baffled the Jerrys of the world; sometimes it made them angry.
Because what they really mean when they asking you is “Are you afraid of what God is going to do to you if you don’t do right?” and “Do you believe that my God is the Big Boss, the one who’s going to come and justify all of the things that are important to me?”
And the only answer I can give them is “No.” So usually I don’t say anything at all.


Mike H. said...

Here in the northeastern USA the question is usually phrased as "What's your faith?" or "What religion do you follow?" This carries similar social acceptability connotations as "Where did you graduate?" The expected answers being, of course, Christian and some ivy league school or major state university.

I do communications work at a food bank. It's always amusing when some donor says to me "God bless you for all the fine Christian work that you do here." *chuckle*

I take such statements in the spirit which they are offered. To do otherwise would simply be boorish. Likewise, when asked about my faith, I usually bear the old saying firmly in mind:

Of the unspoken word,
I am the master.
The spoken word
masters me.

embreis said...

Thanks, Mike. You're the first person to actually comment on my blog. (I don't count the guy who wanted to sell life insurance.) Blessed Be.