June 15, 2010

What It Means to Swim to the Shore Alone

I have begun writing the piece on the nature of money that I had mentioned in the previous posting, but I am not yet finished with it. I am about 25% through the outline I sketched out, but personal issues have caused me to suspend its writing for a few days. When I can devote my full attention again to writing about economic history/theory I will have it posted here, but for tonight, I have some brief thoughts to share.

Though I am not myself a Christian, I find the Evangelical programs on the radio entertaining and very often fascinating (though just as often, frustrating). In my car, when there is nothing good on National Public Radio, I will change stations until I find some one that has preaching on it and listen to what the religious man (they are always men, never women) have to say. Often, I play along by arguing his points aloud or commenting on his thick theological accent or just laughing heartily. Last night I was listening to one such program and the message was about prayer, the power of prayer and how Christians (the preacher's audience) didn't pray with the right mindset. Preachers speak in analogies and anecdotes both to explain (we can understand the unfamiliar and complex by way of the familiar and simple) and to convince (it is weak form of pseudo-argumentation that is most closely related with the fallacy of equivocation). This man was no exception. Some of his anecdotes were good while one stood out to me as meaning exactly opposite what he intended. First let me tell the second hand anecdote he told (now third hand).

In the movie The End, Burt Reynolds is trying to commit suicide by swimming out as far as he can into the ocean, thinking that when he had swum too far for him to be able to swim back, he would drown. But when he gets out as far as he can swim, he has a change of heart and decides he doesn't want to die after all. He prays to God to save him and promises God that he would give everything to Him and devote the rest of his life to serving Him if God would just save him and get him back to shore safely. And thus he begins swimming to shore. When he is halfway back to shore, and near the edge of his endurance, he again prays to God and promises to give half of everything he has and to devote a full fifty percent of his life to The Lord. He continues in this manner, further reducing his pledge of devotion in proportion to the distance he is from shore until finally he steps food on the beach and tells God to forget what he had said before.

Does this mean that the man only turns to God in times of need, receives help and continually bargains his sacrifice down as his immediate need diminishes? Is this man an ungrateful sinner who sees God only as his servant who he may abandon when it is no longer convenient for him? The radio preacher seemed to think so. This thinking however betrays a fatal flaw in religious thought and Burt Reynolds' character (I didn't see the movie myself, but the name of the characters is not important) is acting more reasonable than the radio preacher believes and may have even come close to an important realization at the end, as he touched his foot upon the shore of a godless world. Let me explain what I mean.

He has swum out into the ocean and despairs and asks God for help, but then rather than a giant bird lifting him from the water, or the ocean currents pushing him to shore at the speed of a jet ski, or a team of friendly dolphins being sent to pull him in, or any number of events that would seem at least semi-divine and miraculous, the man swims to shore under his own power. God did not help him. God did not answer his prayer. This first and most obvious fact somehow escaped the radio preacher because he has the tendency, as many Evangelicals do, to ascribe any good event to God and any evil happening to the Devil or man's wickedness. Burt Reynolds' character saves himself and is not saved by prayer or by God and when the danger decreases, but is still present, he again cries out to God, offering less for a lesser miracle. Not an unreasonable equation. God never answers his prayer though and he has to rely on his own will to survive to propel himself to shore and when he finally does set foot on the beach, why should he give anything to God when God didn't help him in his time of need? He simply says, "Nevermind" and the bargaining is at an end, but the greater realization would be to come to understand that he did it, as he has done everything else in his life, and that no gods have had any part in his salvation nor any devils in his damnation. He is a man living in a natural universe and forced to rely on his own wits and abilities and no amount of prayer will change that. The reason that his prayers weren't answered is because there was no one there to hear them

This is a radically different interpretation of the story than the radio preacher. He sees it is a rebuke of man's tendency to turn to God only in times of need then to greedily bargain away what was promised and return to a life of sinful self reliance and individuality. I see it as an encouraging story that suggests that one man discovered the true nature of the universe and the fact that he is responsible for his own destiny and not some imagined caretaker who he yearns to believe in. I see it not as a sinful act of rebellion but as what could be a "spiritual" awakening. Of course, because it is a comedy, I doubt that the character had the epiphany I have imagined for him. The fact remains however, that seen through the lens of subservience, slavery, submission, and religious superstition the man's bargaining is sinful while seen through the lens of individualism, naturalism, skepticism, freedom, self reliance, and rationalism, his actions are enlightened and praiseworthy.

The story is the same in each case, the events unchanged and the telling as neutral as possible (I tried to stay true to what I heard on the radio). First, it was a comedy (in the film version), then a Christian parable of man's short sighted and dishonest nature, and in the last reading it has become a fable about self reliance and the human spirit in a naturalistic world. The anecdote could even be a microcosm of the universe as a whole, which we all view through the lens of our own values. My interpretation of the story shows you what I value. How do you read this story?

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