The child (a female, age fourteen) has been diagnosed with leukemia, and is in the first phase of therapy called “induction”. Therapy is not going well. She developed pancreatitis, and a multitude of other woes, presumably as a result of the chemo. Within three weeks of diagnosis, she ended up in a pediatric intensive care unit on a ventilator. Things were dicey, to say the least, for a few days, but she eventually pulled through, and about six weeks into her diagnosis, was finally discharged from the hospital, at least for now.
Through it all, mom and dad have praised every little development that accrues to their benefit, or their child’s, as the work of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in their lives. It is the living Savior that made passable the freeway traffic in the city dad was visiting on business the day of the child’s diagnosis, so that dad could get to the airport and get home to be with his family. It was the Savior working miracles in their lives that prompted the doctors to unnecessarily infuse an extra bag of platelets before surgery, because it turned out after surgery that they would have needed to anyway. For these parents, there is no such thing as randomness—Jesus Christ is in his heaven watching over them tirelessly like a Superman, sweeping down to turn chance to their favor at every juncture. Never once do they stop to consider that if their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ were the omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent deity as their theology claims of its God, Christ being one of its tripartite forms, then it was in fact their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that was the immediate and efficient cause of not only those things they consider blessings, but also of the curse of leukemia and all its complications that were afflicting their daughter.
But then, mom went overboard in her effusive praise of Christ when they finally were discharged from the hospital, proclaiming that she knew Christ had inspired all those around her in their outpouring of concern and caring and support; that all of it had been nothing more or less than an awesome expression of Christ’s power at work in their lives and the lives of others. But in the Southern Christian theology, as I know all too well, only believers can enjoy the benefits of Christ’s blessings; only the believers are motivated to goodness by His love. So what she was essentially saying is, “See how good is this god we have constructed out of the whole cloths of our imaginations, how desperately loyal he is in trying to win our love and adulation? This god of our creation is awesome, because his creators, i.e., we, are too.”
Did mom check the name badges of the doctors at the hospital where her child was being treated? I imagine more than a few had endings like “berg” or “stein”. Is it belief in the divinity of Christ that causes a Jewish doctor to show compassion, caring and concern for their fellow human through the practice of his profession? I only know the family through some in-laws who go to church with the child’s grandfather in a town several hundred miles from their home. But I know them. They are Southern, living a couple states over from mine, and they profess that curious, ostensibly Christian theology, of white Southerners.
But it wasn’t Christ that inspired me to visit their blog and leave words of encouragement for them. I was prompted to visit by my in-laws because they now think of me as something of a subject-matter expert on childhood leukemia, and thought I might be able to help them help the grandfather understand what was going on. Which I was happy to do. But I did it out of simple human compassion for their plight, understanding all too well the challenges they face in their ordeal.
Was I inspired by Christ’s teachings? Perhaps. The foundation of my ethics—of the manner with which I aspire to treat others–is very simply what Christ said was the second commandment, which was like “loving God” of the first: “Love your neighbor as yourself”. But the fact I learned and internalized Christ’s ethics, and not Plato’s or Buddha’s or Lao Tzu’s, etc., teachings in how best to deal with one’s fellow humans, is more attributable to the vicissitudes of fate plopping me down to earth in a mainly Christian culture in the 20th century, than it is to any profound differences in the fundamental ethics of each. Had I been an ancient Greek, I can only hope that I would have been exposed to Plato, and thereby able to employ his wisdom in living a blessed life; likewise had I been Chinese for Buddha and Lao Tzu.
It pains me to no end to see Christianity being put to service in expressing the all-too-human impulse of tribalism, as, especially in the South, especially in rural and suburban areas, it so often is, and among people with whom I might otherwise identify. Christianity as considered in the Southern mind, and practiced through the Southern heart, is more of a wedge than a connector. As a group theology, recalling the portion of its heritage owed to Moses and the Hebrew nation, its main purpose it to delineate one tribal group from another, excluding those that refuse to express their allegiance to the tribe through acceptance of every facet of its religious dogma. But acceptance into the tribe necessarily limits the mind to the simple memorization and regurgitation of its well-settled tenets, derived from a book authored several millennia ago. No thinking of God, never mind questioning, is ever allowed. God does not write in his book anymore. One must either swallow the beliefs whole hog as they are dogmatically thrust in the face, or attain the status of a spiritual leper. Drink the intellectual kool-aid or go to hell. Those are the choices.
I have chosen to go to hell. I refuse to so limit my intellect. I will not swallow any tribe’s dogma without questioning, without investigating, the validity of its catechism. And so, that’s why, in the eyes of my Southern brethren, I am not a Christian. That’s why, according to them, I will be condemned by God in his heaven to an eternity of hellfire and brimstone. No matter how fastidiously I live and do as Christ taught; no matter whether my actions reveal my heart to be loving my neighbor as myself at every turn, hell awaits: I am not one of them. So be it.
So far as the Southern Christian theology has an individualized expression, God exists as something of a Santa Claus, magically intervening in the lives of believers to bestow gifts upon them because they, as believers in the divinity of his Son, Jesus Christ, are his specially favored children. It is an infantile view of life. It keeps people enthralled and credulous at things they don’t understand, and most of the world, from how cell phones work to traffic jams to platelet counts, they don’t understand. I’ve never believed in Santa Claus and I don’t believe in the divinity of Christ. Neither do I believe that God sits in his heaven, apart from humanity, but concerned enough with its affairs to intentionally intervene, clearing traffic jams or fortuitously infusing platelets. The two, Santa and God, occupy roughly the same place in my mind. Christianity’s image of God the father as a bearded old man dovetails quite appropriately with Santa’s image as a jolly old bearded man. God the father is occasionally wrathful, arbitrary and furiously vengeful. Santa is nicer. They both are the products of human imagination.
This God that Southern Christians worship, on full display in the anguish of the child’s leukemia, is apparently like his followers, quite amenable to instruction. Every day that dad posts a blog entry, he instructs the “prayer warriors” as to what they should instruct God to do. What part of omnipotent, one wonders, does he not understand? God will do what God will do.
I wasn’t so burdened with this view of God when my son first contracted leukemia. I had attended church, which is what is done in the South, more or less all of my life, but had never paid what was said any particular attention, mainly because none of it made any particular sense.
But when my son was first diagnosed and I was forced to suffer through the mindless platitudes of well-wishing practitioners of Southern Christianity, it left me wondering. Why did God spare my child, as the Christians all asserted was the case, but killed Lucas, another kid just down the hall in the same ward as my son? Did God love me more than he loved Lucas’ dad? Was it something I had done that had caused the disparate outcomes? If that’s the case, then why did God so hate me relative to all the other parents whose kids had not suffered a similar fate as mine? Years of study in a number of disciplines led me to the inescapable conclusion that Christian theology is mostly just a contrivance of mankind’s imagination. There is a force or power in the universe that is like the God that Christians describe. It is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, but in the fullest aspect of each attribute. This God suffuses everything. He is in the desk I am writing on. He is in the fingers that are typing. He comprises the roof over my head. But He takes no special notice of me, except in so far as I am a separate mode of His existence.
This God I discovered does not do battle with the evil of leukemia or any other disease; because he is and of every riven thing, he sees no evil. He engages in no battles, because there is nothing that he isn’t a part of; any battle he engaged would be a battle with himself, which makes no sense. All things to God are good, including leukemia, even when it afflicts children. I only fully realized the grace of this God when, during the second transplant, I counted among my blessings my son’s incessantly bleeding bladder. Though I could not possibly understand how it was a blessing, I thanked God for it. And only then did I truly begin to understand God and to appreciate my place in the universe as simply one of a great many of his special modes, of his riven things.
How will the family whose child has leukemia react if things don’t turn out well? Will they blame their God? There have been more than a few Christians turn away from their faith when tested by an outcome for which their exhortations in prayer failed; when they realize that God is not amenable to their instructions, they cease to be interested in seeking his favor.
I think the stricken child has grown more in wisdom than the parents, or perhaps, her mind has not yet been so resolutely polluted by adult rationalizations that she is unable to think. The parents were concerned that the child had taken to reading Job, the Old Testament story of a man whose life is destroyed by God, only to have it reconstructed by him, all because God wanted to prove Job’s goodness. Job is a story that Southern Christians mainly ignore. It requires thinking and questioning, something the ancient Hebrews were well familiar with, but that imperils the tribal cohesiveness so integral to the faith for Southern Christians. My son seems to have grown in wisdom through his ordeals. When asked his favorite Bible verse for a church directory being compiled for the graduating seniors, I was surprised to find he put down a verse from Job. It’s not often a teenager grasps the theological conundrum that is Job. I scurried to my Bible to look up his favorite verse, Job 1:21:
Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has
May the name of the Lord be praised.
I was quite proud of him. He had grappled with the example of Job, and his own life and how it related to God, and settled on the only possible answer. And he did it on his own, without me or anyone else shoveling him dogma and platitudes to be believed or else.
I don’t mean to be too harsh on the family as their leukemia ordeal begins. These are early times yet. Our family has been intermittently dealing with my son’s leukemia, or the effects of its treatment, for over ten years now. I hope for the stricken child and her family the same as I hoped for me and my family—that they are able to gracefully endure whatever God throws their way. And that maybe, just maybe, their ordeal opens their hearts, like it did mine, to a clearer and closer understanding of God.