Truth in Flip Flops
Imagine for a moment that you are in a huge hall with a very large oval table in the center of it with plush chairs all around. You might think that this is a meeting of the G7 or a symposium on some weighty matter facing mankind. You would not be far wrong.
Various well-known celebrities begin to enter the room and take their places at the table. Representatives from all the major religions are there – Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Shintoism, Confucianism, from the East and Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, from the West (although nowadays pluralism has made such east-west distinctions difficult if not obsolete). Each one of them has an important place at the table with their attendants and advisers in close proximity.
Finally, a wave of security breaks through the main doors and a phalanx of advisors, philosophers and scientists come in followed by the representative of Secular Humanism.
Outside are protestors with their placards promoting their particular take on the proceedings.
“Down with religion.”
“Religion is Evil. God is Good.”
“All you need is Love,” and, of course, “Tolerance is the Highest Religion.”
In the background, as you look out the window, you can see various groups under the trees standing in circles, holding hands. Some of them are singing and some appear to be praying.
What is all this?
This is a special emergency meeting called by the United Nations to resolve the world’s religious differences and put an end to war and terrorism and intolerance. Imagine that the world has deteriorated into endless bickering and there is a serious clash of orthodoxies with each side becoming more entrenched in their view of the world. The differences are striking and conflictive. Religious differences can no longer be contained. They are overflowing into politics and racial discrimination and the world is no longer (or never was) safe or at peace. Well, maybe you don’t have to imagine it. It has the ring of reality to it as it stands.
In any event, this is a discussion that has taken place in various forms throughout the history of man. The clash of orthodoxies is a constant reality and a very real threat. Terrorism fuels religious and racial discrimination. Immigration reform and the modern development of a pluralistic society are on the table for serious discussion. Suffice it to say that a person’s view of the world, their interpretation of good and evil, their values, beliefs and needs will affect how the discussion will go. It is to these questions that this group of people will now turn.
“Could I have a word?”
Every head in the room turned toward the sound of the voice.
“How did you get in here?” One of the delegates stood up. “Somebody call the guards.”
But no one moved and I’m not sure any of us really knew why. He was an old man, obviously off the street. His hair was a white bush of unmanageable proportions, matching his beard and his size. He was a large man with a round face. He had the look of a has-been Santa Clause that had seen better times. He stank and his hair was smelly and his old, ragged coat hung on his frame like a tent. I looked down at his feet, which were bare except for an old pair of flip flops protecting them from the cold floor.
Was he hungry? Did he want a handout? Why was he here? I was about to find out.
“I’ve been listening to your conversation,” he said.
Really? How did he do that? At least his speech sounded educated.
“And I would like to make a contribution,” he continued.
“A contribution?” The delegate of Secular Humanism had spoken. “Who are you? What are your credentials? Why should we listen to you?”
“Leave him alone,” the Buddhist delegate said. “Every life is precious and every opinion has truth.”
“Truth?” The Secular Humanist snorted. “What is truth?”
“Good question,” the old man said. Then he was silent.
One of the delegates closest to the old man got up and indicated for him to sit at his place. The old man shuffled forward and sat down heavily. He leaned forward and placed his bare, meaty arms on the table clasping his hands together and looked around at the delegates for a moment.
“Well,” he said finally. “Do you have any food? I’m starved.”
Delegates looked at each other. Questions started to fly and I could see that the old man was already losing the room. But then I saw a young delegate, who was seated against the wall, stand up and walk over to the old man and give him a sandwich and an apple. There was already a glass of water in front of him so he had his meal. The room quieted again in expectation of the old man’s contribution.
“Peanut butter and jelly,” he said. “I love peanut butter and jelly.” He looked at the young delegate. “Thank you, young man.” Then he turned his attention to his sandwich and began to eat. He savored every bite and the room was completely quiet. He took a drink of water and then began on his apple, every crunch clearly heard by all the delegates in the room. When he was done, he put the core of the apple into his empty water glass and then wiped his hands on the front of his coat.
“How was your lunch?” The Secular Humanist wasn’t smiling.
“Fine, thank you,” the old man said.
“Can we get started now? I would love to hear your contribution.” The Secular Humanist tapped his fingers on the table.
“Certainly,” the old man said. “Actually, I have a few questions for you and then a suggestion.”
“Go ahead,” the Jewish delegate said.
He was sitting right beside the old man who turned toward him. “Yohann, it’s so good to see you here. How are Martha and the girls?”
“Do I know you?”
“No, unfortunately not. But I know you.”
The old man turned toward the delegates and swept them all with his eyes. “Let me ask you a question,” he said. “What would it take for you to resolve your differences and live at peace?”
Delegates looked at each other, thought about it. One or two pushed away from the table and got more comfortable, crossing one leg over the other but no one dared answer the question.
The old man was silent.
Finally, the Secular Humanist cleared his throat. “Well, that is the question, isn’t it? What would it take?”
“It would take an act of God,” the Islamic delegate said.
“Who’s God, yours or mine?”
“What if you don’t believe in God?”
The old man raised both his hands for silence and the room gave it to him, albeit a bit reluctantly.
“You claim that happiness is the highest good for individuals and society,” the old man said.
“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the Secular Humanist said.
“Yes, inalienable rights according to some,” the old man said. “But what would it take for all of you to be happy, then? Think outside the box. Think in terms of God-sized solutions.”
Silence reigned for a long moment but then a philosopher, one of the advisors to the Secular Humanist, stood up. “Power. Power is the issue for me. The ability to control my world and the people around me so that I can achieve what I want to achieve and do what I want to do.”
“Ok, power over circumstances and people,” the old man said. “What else?”
“Knowledge,” the Shintoist delegate said. “I would want to know everything I need to know to make good decisions. Especially the future. I would want to know what the future holds each time I am faced with a choice.”
“Power, knowledge,” the old man said. “Anything else?”
“Resources,” the Protestant delegate said. “Maybe that’s part of power but I would want enough resources so that everyone in the world could live dignified lives and fulfill their God-given potential.”
“Power, knowledge, resources,” the old man said. “That’s a good start. Now who should I give that power, knowledge and resources to?”
Did he just say “I”? What was he playing at?
The room was quiet. Finally, the Pope spoke up.
“Well, if we were honest, most of us would like a chance to be that person. But the truth be told, I don’t think any of us could handle it.”
“Why not?” the old man said quietly.
No one wanted to answer that question.
“Because absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It was the young delegate who had given the old man his peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
The old man looked at him and smiled, and then turned back to the delegates around the table. “Is that true?”
Heads nodded and shoulders shrugged. “We might all explain it a bit differently, but, at heart, it’s true.” The Taoist delegate was speaking. “There’s something wrong with us deep within our natures that we simply can’t control. Call it desire, call it evil, call it sin. Whatever it is, it’s dangerous. Your kind of power would destroy us.”
“And yet you need my kind of power in order to be happy, to resolve your differences, to be at peace. Don’t you find that strange?”
I couldn’t put my finger on what was going on. The old man seemed to grow in strength, his presence radiating out into the room. There was a growing certainty that this was no ordinary man. The reality of something extra-ordinary, something supernatural was in the air. But the sense of divine reality was gentle, not overwhelming, just enough to make honesty more important than self-interest, just enough to make each delegate search their hearts and speak frankly with each other for once in their lives. It was a strange but glorious moment.
“Let me sum up for you then,” the old man said. “You find yourselves in a world which is not always friendly. In fact, it can be downright dangerous. You have needs and desires but you don’t always get what you want or need. Both nature, or circumstances, and other people often interfere in your pursuit of what you think is good for you. You need each other but you are at odds with each other and this world that I have made.”
There was that “I” word again. What was this?
“What was that word you like to use? Oh, yes, ‘estrangement-dependency.’ A good word,” the old man said. “But I think there is more to it than meets the eye. The question is who are you really dependent on and who are you really estranged from?”
“Well,” one of the delegates said, “we are dependent on nature and on each other.”
“You need each other but you don’t trust each other,” the old man said. “You need this world and yet it seems to have a mind of its own. You receive disease and storms and earthquakes in equal measure with a bountiful harvest.” The old man paused to look around the room with sharp eyes. “And what of the One who created the nature you are dependent on and the others you are estranged from?”
“God? Which God?” someone said.
“There is no God,” another said.
“We are all gods. Creation itself is an expression of the divine.”
The old man glared around the room and spoke with authority. “It is the truth that will set you free. You need power to control your surroundings. You need knowledge to use that power wisely, especially the knowledge of the future consequences of your actions. You need resources to fulfill all your needs and bring happiness to this world and to resolve your differences and to bring you peace. But you can’t handle it. The problem is within. You either need to become divine or you need a new relationship with the divine. Those are your choices.”
The room was silent.
“To become divine,” the Protestant delegate said after a moment, “we would need to become good, really, completely good in the deepest parts of our nature. That’s the only way to handle the divine power, knowledge and resources that we need.”
The old man turned toward him. “Do you think you’re up to the task?” He looked around at all of the delegates. “Does anyone here believe that they can handle the task of becoming divine? How would you do it? What would it look like? Will science and technology accomplish it? Will a centralized, world government give you the power and resources to make a real difference? Who will make you good enough to handle the responsibility? What Messiah will you choose to lead you? How soon before his benevolence becomes dictatorship and his goodness is revealed as nothing more than a dirty coat to be cast aside when it is no longer useful?”
The old man looked at them with blazing eyes.
“You have been playing God for centuries now and you have learnt nothing. What you need is a new relationship with your Creator.”
“But how can we get him to do what we need him to do?” The Hindu delegate had decided to make a contribution. “I don’t know much about this God of yours but he hasn’t done much for mankind that I can see.”
The old man smiled slowly.
“Yes, by all means, try to control God or blame God,” he said. “That will solve all your problems. You’ve been doing that from the beginning as well.” Then he was silent.
The room was quiet for a long moment.
“Well, if God really exists, then trying to control him is out of the question,” someone said. “If we can’t blame God, then who is responsible for this mess?”
“You must decide,” the old man said, “whether God is evil and you are good or whether you are evil and God is good.”
The room was deathly quiet.
“If God is good and we are not,” Yohann, the Jewish delegate said, “then I suppose we must take responsibility for our own mess.”
Heads began to nod in agreement as murmurs and comments chased each other around the room. Honesty, and self-knowledge, for once, was the priority.
“Well spoken, Yohann,” the old man said.
Then he stood up to face the room. “I heard one of you earlier say that the solution was love. How did you put it?” He looked up and started to quote from memory.
“To achieve the highest good, we must become good, deep in our natures. We must learn the intrinsic beauty of love and give it freely to all without thought of return solely because every human being has inherent value and deserves our respect and care. Love must come from within. It must become a virtue before it can become a solution.”
He looked around the room. “I liked that very much.” Then he shrugged his shoulders. “The only problem is that little word ‘become’ – such a small word really, but with such an impossible dilemma behind it.”
You could have heard a pin drop.
“I have news for you,” he said. “You might have caused all the problems of this world, but you cannot fix it on your own. Evil cannot become good. Morality does not create a relationship with the Divine. A relationship with the Divine creates morality.” He paused. “You will need help.”
“Help?” the Shinto delegate said. “From whom?”
“I have put my son in charge and he can explain everything to you. Remember, the truth can set you free but only if you embrace it. You need a new relationship with your Creator. My son will teach you the ways of love and give you the power to pursue it.” He sat down again.
“What if we don’t want a new relationship with this Creator of yours?” The words shot across the table with the force of a hurricane. I had almost forgotten about the delegate of Secular Humanism. He had been biding his time, listening to the conversation and, apparently, he didn’t like the direction things were going.
“Your personal decisions will always be respected,” the old man said quietly. “If you don’t want a new relationship with your Creator, you won’t get one. But be warned. You won’t always have the benefits and the blessings of the Creator either.”
“What does that mean? What’s he talking about?”
The old man ignored the question.
“You must choose a delegate from among you and he will speak to my son and will report back to you everything that you must do. He must be a seeker after the truth and he must be a seeker after the Giver of the Truth. It is a dangerous journey for only the pure in heart can see my son in his glory and survive.”
The old man turned in his chair and looked straight at me. I thought I was invisible in my corner of the room as I listened to the conversation. I trembled when I saw his eyes and he indicated that I should step forward. With one step, I went from shadow into light and every eye in the room riveted on me. I had nothing to say.
“This man will be your delegate. Listen to him.”
A shiver ran through my body, my knees became weak and I fainted dead away.
The Desert Warrior
P.S. Let’s talk to God….
Lord, if you came to visit us and talk with each of us, is this how the conversation would go. You bring the discussion to a higher level. You want to talk about life and death and love and evil. We just want to pay the bills. Save me from my own myopic lifestyle. Help me to think in terms of eternity. I want to understand better what it means to live this life with you at my side. Save me from my myself, O Lord. In your name I pray. Amen.