Monday, January 24, 2011

Milton Bradley was wrong: Life is not a game (Sunday Reflections for January 9, 2011)

(After a month's long break, I will be back to posting again. First, I'll catch up with my Sunday morning bulletin Reflections.)

What do these stories have in common?
  • Thousands of people, including prominent professional athletes, wear a metal wrist band believing it will improve their strength, balance and other aspects of physical well-being. A recent admission by the retailer that there is no scientific evidence to support its claims for the bracelets seems to have had little or no impact on the beliefs of current users or on sales.
  • Based on the calculations of a radio evangelist, thousands of people are preparing for the return of Jesus Christ this May 21. Specifically, they believe that Christian “true believers” will be raptured into heaven on this date while the world will come to an end five months later on October 21. This news is being spread via religious broadcasts, billboards, and individual witnessing. Some have had the message painted on their cars and vans. Previously this same evangelist had said these events would occur in 1994 but later revised his biblical interpretations.
  • Thousands of people, mostly parents, believe the little understood psychological condition called autism is caused by childhood vaccines. Though there has been little scientific support for this belief, in recent years there has been a drop in vaccination rates and an increase in outbreaks of the diseases the vaccines prevent. This week the one peer reviewed study supporting the vaccine-autism connection was shown to be “an elaborate fraud” involving faked evidence by the researcher.
You may view some or all of these ideas as simply silly and evidence of how gullible people can be. Nonetheless, the people who bought into these notions are generally not especially different from our friends and family, or even ourselves. They are not particularly dimwitted or have a diagnosable psychological disorder. Believing what they believe and doing what they do seems reasonable to them.

What these stories do point to, though, is a commonly held assumption that fundamental truths about life and the world are often hidden from us. Sometimes these truths are hidden as part of a deception by others and sometimes that hiddeness is just part of their nature. We often believe that we aren’t being told the whole story; that things are happening “behind the scenes” which are being kept from us.

In the modern world we are susceptible to such beliefs because life is so complex. We often have to deal with large bureaucracies. Advanced technologies force us to trust in countless experts. When we can’t get the results we want we are prone to think we aren’t talking to the right person or somehow we aren’t being told the whole truth. We all understand the frustrating dilemma of Dorothy and her companions: How do we get to see the Wizard, the one who has the answers?

People in the ancient world had much the same experience, however. For them it was simply the mysteries of the pre-scientific world that were so frustrating. So much of day-to-day life, like illness or natural disasters, just seemed random and haphazard. “That’s just the way it is” was no more an acceptable response then than it is now. Religion, in countless forms, was often the primary response to this confusion. Scriptures, prophets, and soothsayers claimed to know things that were hidden from ordinary people.

The Judeo-Christian tradition certainly got pulled in that direction many times over the centuries, and still can be today. Yet I think that is not its essential nature. Despite the claims of many fundamentalists, the Bible is not an “answer book.” Rather, as Luther said, its goal is to create and build faith, which is probably best understood as “trust.” As Einstein said (in another context but I think still reflecting his Jewish upbringing), “God does not play dice with the universe”—nor with our lives, we might add.

In this respect the Bible’s message is simple and reassuring. Life is not a game. There are not winners and losers. There is not a grand and hidden “Meaning to Life” which we must discover but rather we are simply given the gift and the challenge of creating the meaning of our own individual lives.

There are a few rules but even the Bible treats them as simple and obvious. Both testaments have famous versions of them. In Micah we read, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” And Jesus congratulates the man who responds to the question about the greatest commandment this way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."

Yes, there are many things about the world we don’t know or understand. And, yes, undoubtedly there are things that people intentionally keep from us which ought to be made public. But when it comes to the essential questions and challenges of our lives there really is no mystery or conspiracy. Our life is a gift, as is the lives of all those around us. Our challenge is simply to enjoy them and make the most of them, and do so with a spirit of gratitude.