One of the hardest, but most important, lessons that we learn as children is that life is not fair. It is a hard pill to swallow when we are forced to accept that winning and losing has almost no correlation to whether you are the good guy or the bad guy. We learn that tragedy befalls the best of people, and fortune can often favor the worst. Parents do what they can to shield us from this reality until we have the strength to face it, but face it we must. We eventually are forced to abandoned the story book fantasy that somehow the great chain of events will tend to intrinsically favor those the just and noble.
However there are many who do not abandon this fantasy, rather they re-work the model to suit a more complex world. I am speaking, of course, of the religious, and more specifically Christians. I am certain that much of what I am about to say is applicable to a majority of faiths, but Christianity is the one with which I am most familiar and qualified to speak on.
The Christian fantasy promises that those who believe in God, and pray faithfully in his name, shall receive his blessings and know his love. Of course some theologians and apologists define God’s intervention is such an incredibly intangible way that God seems to do nothing at all, other than simply be. This kind of quasi-deistic approach to God’s intervention is not the belief I am talking about here. I am talking about the millions of American Christians who actively believe that God will intervene on behalf of the faithful in a real (although often vague) way. Most Christians believe in the power of prayer to some extent, but are often uncertain about the details of the process. The general principle is that being a devout follower of God will cause things to turn out the best for you. In some fashion God will intervene, imposing his will on the natural order of things, so that events will go better for you than they would have without your faith and his involvement. Even if the fates which rule this mortal plain conspire against you relentlessly, there is always the promise that your faith will be ultimately rewarded in death. This is the ultimate version of the childhood fantasy that Good Guys win and Bad Guys lose. This is a cosmic version of the idea that everything will work out in the end for our hero. It is the ultimate manifestation of the fact that we, as a people and a culture, crave justice.
I cannot possibly attack justice can I? Would I dare? Of course we crave justice. We long to, as much as it is within our power, support and enforce a just society. The definition of justice may be amorphous and relative, but the general tenets remain the same. Justice is a state which exists when all things are fair, when those who do good are assured that good will come to them, and those who do bad will reap what they sow. Justice exists when people are rewarded for the ways in which they are exceptional, but not penalized for shortcomings beyond their own control. We all long to live in a just world. There is certainly nothing wrong with that.
Justice becomes a problem when we decide that it is a quality which emerges from an entity rather than a state to which entities must adhere. There is a stupendous potential for harm when we decide that any agent, be it King, Emperor, or Deity, is intrinsically just, and their actions define the just state.
So when trouble befalls a Christian, as it does all of us, what is that person to make of their situation? Omnipotence is within the definition of God, he controls everything. Justice is within the definition of God, for any act of God’s is intrinsically just. It is also within the definition of God that he will bless the faithful. So when hardship befalls the faithful, of course it would cause cognitive dissonance. As we know, when there is cognitive dissonance, the imbalance must be corrected. Unfortunately that corrective mechanism, as taught and believed by most Christians, comes in the form of servility.
What does the devout Christian say when the worst things happen to them, despite their prayers and observations? We’ve all heard it. “This is a test of faith.”
Church leaders have known since antiquity that trouble can befall the faithful, and that this fact clashes directly with other features of God, and so since the very beginning the religion has included, as one of its most popular parables, a story that attempts to make a virtue out of patient unquestioning submission in the face of repeated abuse. Of course I am speaking of Job.
This man, elevated as a paragon, is subject to repeated abuse, of the most extreme nature, so that God may boast about how faithful his followers are. The story teaches the lesson that a proper servant is to endure the beatings of his master, no matter how inexplicable they may be, and be proud of the opportunity to do so.
This is the mechanism many Christians use to justify the worst in their life. They are merely to trust in God’s supreme motives, endure with humility the burden placed upon them, and always be thankful to their Lord. They believe, with all of their wretched hearts, that what is happening to them is, in fact, part of the ultimate justice, even if they do not understand it. At least in the end, these poor souls believe, they will go on to their eternal reward.
This is the ultimate form of servility: To suffer abuse and then thank your abuser, to accept the whipping and trust that it is for your own good. There is no more absolute expression of what it means to be a slave than this. It is always amazing, or rather disturbing, how much we are willing to pay for some measure of security against doubt. Death is the last frontier. At best what is beyond the door of death is a great unknown. At worst lies beyond the door of death is true oblivion, nothingness, the ceasing of existence as we know it. What could be more terrifying than that? We would rather face a Hell than face unbeing.
And so religion will quell that ultimate fear. Religion will sooth the nervous uncertainty. Christianity will assure us that beyond death lies Heaven or Hell, but still some eternal form of being. Religion will take us by the hand, as if we were children, and assure us that in the end the good guys really do win, the bad guys really do lose, and the universe really is fair. We are only asked to pay a toll of pride, dignity, and integrity to receive this perverse blessing.