Ethics of Religion: Imagine You're Jesus

(at the risk of offending absolutely everyone... this is about thinking).

Imagine You Are Jesus, and You've recently arrived back in Heaven.  You are looking down at the world, and You have some followers, some people who are genuinely enlightened by the golden rule, loving their neighbors as themselves, bearing fruit one hundred fold.

You also see about a million people who are just awful.  Just the worst.  Cruel, murdering, thieving, a million people who kill children.

Two of Your followers, named Pastor West and Pastor East, feel heartbroken by the badness.  West and East both live by Your golden rule, they both give away their possessions to help the needy, and they both try to be perfect as their Father in heaven is perfect.

Then Pastor West speaks up.  He tells the million violent and angry people that You, Jesus, spoke to him personally, and gave him a saintly prophetic vision... that You, Jesus, had told him Your plans for a place called Hell.  Agonizing, atrocious, flesh eating fire which never ends, forever and ever and ever, and that you were going to throw those million sinners into a firey doom.  And that you spoke of a place called Heaven, where all people who believe in You and change their ways will live in Joy and harmony.

Of course, You said no such thing.  Your allegories of gnashing of teeth were intended to describe a life trying to bless itself with material goods which pass.  Pastor West weeps tears of joy at the feeling of "Your" words, adding emphasis and importance to the "vision".

But... Imagine it appears to work sometimes.  Of the million sinners, imagine that half of them pause, fearing death and Hell, and that they lay down their weapons and stop killing children...  Hundreds of thousands are spared, as armies and gangs set down their weapons, and pray for salvation from the Vision of Hell.

On the day Your two followers meet You in heaven, they each plead their case...

Pastor West, Your loud follower says to You, that he's sorry he lied about You speaking to him about a vision of Hell.  He explains that he was just sickened by the killing of children.  He felt he had to at least try.  He tells You personally of some of the wives and children he has saved from rampage, of some of the hateful murderers who finally changed their ways and became cornerstones of faith in their communities.  Perhaps, West concludes, there was another honest way to save people, but that at least he tried.  Even the children who were not spared had left with a dream in their hearts of something better ahead, giving them hope and calm in a moment of terror.   He asks that You forgive him if he was not smart enough or inspired enough to find another way, but that having looked into the eyes of the children, silently thanking him for the end or their torment, he was sure that Your Name would live on and receive credit and thanks from Your people.  He had found himself in an impossible situation, and had done what he could think of to right it and change it.

Your quiet Pastor East heard it, but never did repeat the story of Hell.  He did not call the other follower out, for he believes in You, and accepted the possibility you'd spoken personally to someone in a vision.  But he doubted that is the way You'd choose.  Sharing a vision with personal favorite followers would leave the door open for spin, for division, conflict, interpretation, exaggeration, and falseness.  When he spoke to the unconverted, the "punishment and reward" he spoke of were purely spiritual.  He preferred to speak always the truth, for he said humbly, he did not know where his lies would eventually lead him.   When You ask about the million sinners, and the children who were saved, Pastor East says... "The sinners, childrens'  fears, sadness and death will be with us always.  People will change and adapt, and the next generation will evolve to exploit lies as weakness.  How many of the children saved will grow up to believe Would You speak behind people's backs, leaving us all to choose our path between salesmen?   I am sorry for the children who died, but if I make up a story You've told me to change them, then I have tried to replace You."

You think about Your two disciples.

  1. Pastor West, the hell inventing follower is your favorite, because he saved 500,000 children. Although he sinned by lying, his chosen Ends were good.  He tried, and his story of hell had good intentions.  In the place he stood, with the compassion for children he felt, You have a soft spot for those who put themselves at risk and try to right wrongs and bring more heaven unto the earth.
  2. Pastor East, the quiet follower, is Your favorite.  She was wiser.  She saw that over many decades, while some children would be saved, that the lives saved are temporary, and that evil would adapt to it, and reap a later vengence.  Eventually, the murderers will stop believing in Hell, and children will stop believing in Heaven.  The sinners must not convince others that Jesus Visions cannot be trusted.

I shared this parable spontaneously at lunch with my kids today, and asked them, if they were Jesus, who would be the better follower?   The point was not religious, but to introduce them to the idea of Ethics, of dialogue about ethics.

One of my kids said he admired  the lying Christian more, because he had saved children with his effort.  At least he tried, he tried something, and he had some success to show for it.  It seemed to me a "western" opinion.

I think that is the difference between Western and Eastern religion.   Eastern religions, like Buddhism and Sikkhism, take a long view.   Suffering quietly and waiting for reincarnation to correct the imbalances over time.

In the end, the best way for me to parent is to prepare my children to be parents.  Sometimes they will choose to be Pastor East, and sometimes to be Pastor West.  I could say honestly that I've experienced "born again", as used to inspire a moment of Christian prayer which imprinted me forever.  I must also say, honestly, that the Plato, Bhagavad Gita, Hesse's Siddhartha, Twain, and even Trungpa made me a better Christian, and that like aluminum, Christianity is best as an alloy of other faiths.

I would tell my children that the best way to meet Jesus or Muhammed or any messiah is to be surprised while doing what you have always done, and to always do the best thing you can think of to be doing.  Thinking of the best thing to be doing means educating yourself, testing your assumptions, engaging in internal dialogue with your ideal self.  If you are honest about your faults, you will feel less ashamed if insights and discoveries seem pompous.  If you donate and share, the benefits you receive will seem to you less self-serving.  Truth is light, faith is gravity.  I find fundamental Christianity to be a walk in the dark, insisting that light is unnecessary.  I find science more enlightening, but cannot find a way to "prove" ethics in science, and setting a direction without an independent source of ethical direction is like plotting your path by the wind, not the stars.

In science fiction, or in reality, the universe is practically infinite.  Humans are probably wasting their time on the lottery tickets of planets floating in sight.   The farther out of sight of Hubble, the more space we are talking about.  And the farther out you imagine, the more we can imagine.  The ones I am thinking about would be as far above me as I am to an insect or worm.  I believe in Ethics there, that ethics are a force like physics that these advanced beings would recognize and follow.  I would like humans to be like an amazing ethical insect, which the aliens marvel over, that a being as primitive as a human has some "instinct" or honeybee-dance that they respect and marvel at... that we seem better than we have the capability to be.  And that the aliens would see us the way I see a bat, using sonar to catch mosquitos in the night, and that these advanced aliens would like me the way I love bats and dolphins and sea otters.

And that my friends is my analogy for a God who is all powerful, omniscient, all seeing, but personal.  But Jesus didn't tell me that in a vision.   The only truths I have are those that I have found by being honest with myself, by praying or meditating as I can, by confessing what I am strong enough to confess, and most of all by loving the truth and seeking it and trying my best not to be wrong.  People who never think they are wrong aren't very socially welcome, people who try to never be wrong (like people who try never to overeat), will be less likely to be wrong than people who don't care or don't try.  By trying to be right, by reading and educating and mulling it all over, we get better, and socially can only a) self deprecate, and b) stand up to bullies.   To the degree we can do that without bragging or being ego involved, we'll be nicer people to be around.  But saving children and animals isn't always a matter of making popular decisions in the short run.  It takes the intellectual stamina of an engineer, and the creativity of a child without a toy.

In that way, one of my kids began to pick apart the allegory, tried to find inconsistency and to undermine the premise of Pastors East and West.  It's an intelligent act, but I asked him to suspend this and to accept the premise on faith in order to understand the philosophical and ethical discussion it was intended to bring.  He'd get a later shot at the foundation.  It was intelligent, and I meant to reward it, but I was in a way asking him to suspend logic and to accept the parable on faith.  We all have a little Pastor West in us.  We just have to be honest as we can, and to identify what we are saying on faith as opposed to what we claim to have been told in fact.

Nothing about e-waste or the environment here.   My job is the environment, and I love it like family.  I want my family and grandchildren and friends I will never meet, in future times and places, to have an environment that would not make me ashamed of my consumption.  Ethically, taking the earth and leaving it a mess (like extinction) that cannot be cleaned up is unethical, unattractive, badness.  Supernovas will always change the climate someday, but it's not an excuse to bake it NOW.  Reflecting on the infinite and universal will sharpen the tools we all need to save chimpanzees from bushmeat mongers.  See, that's what I'm talking about, not just recycling tantalum or mining coltan from cell phones for its own sake.


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