Death and Religion

Mar 07 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

On Feb 13th, the Sunday NYTimes had a brilliant, lyrical and moving opinion piece titled "Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me" by Kate Bowler.

Bowler is a Christian and  a scholar who is dying of Stage 4 cancer. The article is weaves her research on prosperity Christianity (i.e., God wants Me! and You! to be rich). It's also one version of the "everything happens for a reason" and "God has a purpose for everything" life views, views, in my experience, held to no good end by both crunchy left-leaning alternatives and socially conservative, right-leaning devoutes.

There are many quotes worth repeating in the article, including her husband's response to everything for a reason: "I'd love to hear it". One of my favorites (which anyone who has either nearly died, or watched someone they love, someone they cannot image living without, has thought/felt):

Cancer requires that I stumble around in the debris of dreams I thought I was entitled to and plans I didn't realize I had made.

But I find her message confusing. She is criticizing, it seems, the people who say "for a reason" when there is obviously not one, other than, as she points out, the fragility of the human body. Or the confluence of events and genes over which one has neither control nor even knowledge. She talks about the use of "blessed" and how it blurs gift and reward. Which is it? The gift she says, is the acknowledgement that "I could not do this by myself". Why are we wondering about an external entity stepping in to do something for us mere mortals? Why for this mortal and not that one? Is this mortal better?

She implicitly criticizes the reward interpretation:

But it can also imply that it was deserved. “Thank you, me. For being the kind of person who gets it right.” It is a perfect word for an American society that says it believes the American dream is based on hard work, not luck.

Actually, this is probably closer to what really happens, it's just calling it a "blessing" is a bit odd. Step up and take credit for what you've done in life. Isn't the world as a large complex multi-multi-multi-dimensional interaction among humans and other creatures and weather and inanimate objects, that might all have trajectories and reasons, but to each of us, be a dreadfully random set of effects?

Bowler dissects the damage, the emotional and spiritual damage, that those beliefs bring. The message: follow these rules and God will reward you, is okay, except when it isn't. At the end of her opinion piece she is still admiring the daily lives of believers, finding them inspirational, "stubbornly getting out of their hospital bed and declare themselves healed".  But what about the damage? What about the people who die in shame, who can't let go? What about the children who die senselessly? Is that part of God's plan? If some deity brings you prosperity, because you pray, but the next day, a drunk driver kills your child, is it because your prayer was not pure enough, not strong enough? Please tell me what is the good that comes from a young child's death?

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