Thursday, December 21, 2006

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

As the winter shadows lengthen and the nights grow long, those of us baptized in the name of Christ are enjoined to turn our thoughts to matters of redemption and grace. But let's not just yet. The other morning, I ran across two newspaper articles that in their symmetry led me to savor once again the hard-won blessings of secularism, as both as a social principle and a personal inclination. I fear we won't adequately appreciate it until it is gone.

The first article I read detailed the escape from the United Kingdom of one Mustafa Jama, a Somali immigrant wanted in connection with the murder of a police officer. The suspect, Mr. Jama - dutifully veiled as the Koran supposedly dictates - fled the country on his sister's passport. Though airport authorities have the power to insist that a veil be removed, or at least lifted, under suspicious circumstances, they failed to do so in this case, as can hardly be surprising since they had no way of knowing that "their man" was hidden behind the veil. He was, by the way, the most wanted man in the UK at that time, and his photograph would have been known to every airport security officer. Sadly, photos aren't of much use when faces are concealed. Undoubtedly, Mr. Jama's escape was abetted by Britain's cringing reluctance to offend religious sensibilities.

And elsewhere on our fallen globe, in the Holy Land, as fate would have it, we find an American-Israeli woman of respectable middle age severely beaten by a "modesty patrol" for her failure to relocate to the back of a bus. No, it's not what you're thinking, a pack of rabid Palestinians asserting their archaic faith on this Jewish passenger, shortly before detonating themselves. Miriam Shear, who, despite her "American-Israeli" status now lives in Canada, was on her way to pray at the Wailing Wall, when her evidently insufficient religious zeal and submission led her to conflict with her fellow Jews. According to the article:

Though not defined by Egged [the transit system, one supposes] as a sex-segregated "mehadrin" bus, women usually sit in the back, while men sit in the front, as a matter of custom.

"Every two or three days, someone would tell me to sit in the back, sometimes politely and sometimes not," she recalled this week in a telephone interview. "I was always polite and said 'No. This is not a synagogue. I am not going to sit in the back.'"

But Shear, a 50-year-old religious woman, says that on the morning of the 24th, a man got onto the bus and demanded her seat - even though there were a number of other seats available in the front of the bus.

"I said, I'm not moving and he said, 'I'm not asking you, I'm telling you.' Then he spat in my face and at that point, I was in high adrenaline mode and called him a son-of-a-bitch, which I am not proud of. Then I spat back. At that point, he pushed me down and people on the bus were screaming that I was crazy. Four men surrounded me and slapped my face, punched me in the chest, pulled at my clothes, beat me, kicked me. My snood [hair covering] came off. I was fighting back and kicked one of the men in his privates. I will never forget the look on his face."

Throughout the encounter, Shear says the bus driver "did nothing." The other passengers, she says, blamed her for not moving to the back of the bus and called her a "stupid American with no sechel [common sense.] People blamed me for not knowing my place and not going to the back of the bus where I belong."

Rather ironic, eh, given the Jewish commitment in America to abolishing this sort of "segregated seating" on public conveyance. But I suppose, when adamantine faith walks in the front door, good sense and reason fly out the window. I realize - or rather I assume - that Israel is not a secular state, though when I read this sort of thing, I wonder whether it should be. Sadly, the invocation of "God's will" is the most obvious smokescreen for all sorts of abhorrent and infantile human behavior.

Oh, and I don't mean to give Christians a free pass in honor of the season. In preparation for writing this, I saved an article from the Daily Mail about a vicar, or rather, former vicar, with an "Aladdin's Cave" of child pornography stashed in his home:

The collection, which took half a century to amass, was discovered after undercover police infiltrated the International Paedophile Child Emancipation Group and its subsidiary, Gentlemen With An Interesting Name. Both championed the legalisation of sex between adults and children.

At this point, such revelations hardly raise an eybrow. We all know about the salacious priest and the trailer park snake handler. We've seen the the televangelist entrepreneur, and learned to steer clear of the serial adulterer with the dog collar and the sympathic ear. We've laughed over Earnest Angley and Jimmy Swaggart, over Jim and Tammy Faye.

I once took a class with a guy who'd been a musician in the 700 Club orchestra, or whatever they called themselves. He described most of his bandmates as having well-established drug habits, and the 700 club itself as a den of orgies and depravity. Of course, he rather enjoyed his time there. This, by the way, was years before Jim Baker's scandal broke. So, we know. Men (I am using this in the archaic sense, to mean all of us primates), including men of the cloth, are after all, only men.

It seems to me that this season provides us with ample opportunity to reflect upon - and reinforce - some principles. If one believes that God, or Allah, or the next-door neighbor's Doberman Pincer, mandates that one keep one's face concealed from public scrutiny, one has the right to do so. In the privacy of one's home, that is, where of course, it's sort of unnecessary. This right stops at the front door. That's not to say that you can't wear a veil anywhere else. It is to say that society, not God, will decide, outside of your home, where you can and where you cannot, based on reasonable concerns about public safety. Mr. Jama has just recently demonstrated why such concerns are reasonable.

In much of the Western world, and certainly in America, we have a right, as some would phrase it, a "God-given right," to own a gun. We do not, however, have a right to brandish our guns in places like airports, bus terminals, banks, and schools. Similarly, if your religion commands the veil, fine, but if you choose to obey, you will have to forego air travel or rent your own Learjet. You will not be able to get a driver's license, and you will have to start keeping your money under the mattress, where it belongs anyway. Usury under Islam is a sin.

There is ample precedent for this position. I admire the humble Amish, who keep to themselves and drive those quaint black carriages. But they can't drive them on our Interstate Highway System, regardless of whether or not God has given them the green light. This, it seems to me, is the spirit of secularism, which is neither pro nor anti, but seeks only to establish that religious conviction carries no greater authority than do philosophical or scientific principles, and regardless of faith, conduct within a society must conform to legitimately derived legal constraint. Can our civilization (I use the word generously) long endure without it?

When confronted by the armies of God, we may all find useful Huck's memorable, "Alright then, I'll go to Hell." In other words, I'll take my chances among the flames, or better yet, in simple oblivion, rather than endure an eternity of trying to twist my mind around a set of lurid, self-contradictory doctrines that no intelligent twelve year old could easily accomodate. Twelve year old, hell! I remember my nephew, at the age of eight, giggling over some of the more obvious absurdities of faith, then concluding sarcastically with "What a fairy tale!"

And yet, given the stupidity with which we abase ourselves before God, and the horrors we inflict on each other in His name, does it then come as a surprise that belief in God seems only an archaic dream or childish wish? Or that a deity present in his absence, seems, more likely, simply absent? But then again, look around. Who wouldn't want to hide from us? A guy I used to know once said, "if there was someplace else to go, I'd be there." The place from which he sought refuge was Earth, or more broadly, existence.

As agnostic as I am by nature and by hard experience (in other words, ordinary experience), I can't get completely past the "What if . . . What then?" Many years ago, a friend of mine showed me an article written by an architectural critic he admired. My friend, an architect himself, commented that the author, though brilliant, had only recently been released from prison, having served a couple of years on a conviction for something like check fraud. Oh well, fertile minds generally suffer from an surfeit of intellectual energy, which they often dispose of in random and unsavory ways. If you doubt this, read the biography of a favorite author.

But the one thing I remember from this article - and what it had to do with architecture I have no idea - was the observation that the only thing more difficult to believe in than the existence of God was the absence of God.

The pedestrian interpretation of this would have to be that a life without faith is a more difficult life, a life more fraught with fear and despair than need be. In other words, regardless of God's existence or non-existence, why inflict hardship on yourself, even in the name of truth? But I don't think that this was what context of this article implied, nor what its author actually meant. The point, then and now, seems to me that, simply from a coldly analytical standpoint, the existence and the non-existence of God are somehow both terribly unlikely to the human mind.

It's always stayed with me, this paradox. It might be worthy of God himself. There are two options. One of them undergirds the structure of the universe, and the other is purest self-deception. Both strain credulity, and neither can be confirmed. What does it mean that both the prospect of God and the possibility of his absence rend the mind with doubt? The closest I've come to faith is turning round and round in my mind this crystal-like paradox, and pondering its improbability - either way.

God . . . no God . . . God . . . no God . . . the presence . . . the absence . . . the candle . . . the flame. This is the best justification I've stumbled across for entertaining the notion of God.

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