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The Serenity Prayer does not depend on belief in God, but rather expresses basic principles of life:
God, grant me
the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
This pertains to where one directs one’s attention, how one chooses to feel, and where one focuses one’s desires. These are acts not of the mind, but of the will.
Jeffrey Tayler says, “Given the possibility that terrorists may acquire weapons of mass destruction and nuclear states with faith-based conflicts may let fly their missiles, religion may be said to endanger humanity as a whole. No one who cares about our future can quietly abide the continuing propagation and influence of apocalyptic fables that large numbers of people take seriously and not raise a loud, persistent, even strident cry of alarm.”
Fact: those who direct Iran’s nuclear program aren’t likely to listen to an atheist American Islamophobe.
No end of drama, turmoil, confusion, angst and alienation become available in fixing one’s desires on things one cannot change —
Others’ beliefs, for example.
All this sturm und drang can feel as if it justifies the cause. One can find great self-importance in playing David and Goliath with the bogeyman. But in the end, one will accomplish nothing. One cannot change what one cannot change.
The courage to change the things I can, can only be exercised over those matters that are within my reach — literally — here and now; not in the past, not in the future. When I focus my attention on these things, it quickly becomes clear that my happiness does not depend on my circumstances (This is crucial for a homeless man.) or on what others say and do. I can choose my feelings at will. I can change them at will. I can embrace what is.
This contrasts with Tayler’s apparent choice to reject what is — the fact that anyone believes — and make his happiness contingent on the elimination of belief throughout the world. Life lived that way must be a living hell.
Embracing what is may take some work. What is includes many facts one might rather not embrace.
The McDonald’s I frequent somehow attracts disproportionate numbers of drunks, drug addicts and psychotics — apart from the homeless. The atmosphere is often unpleasant. I cannot change these people’s lives, but I can choose how I regard and interact with them. My religion calls me to love these people whom I may not like; to recognize and interact with each person as a child of God.
I used to live in a “distressed” neighborhood, where most of my neighbors, most of the time, busied themselves in self-destruction of one form or another, blaming others for their self-created difficulties. Life lived that way is a living hell. I realized that I cannot change their lives. The most I could do for them was to live and speak as one who takes ownership of his own affairs. This done, one can almost always find a way, no matter how meager one’s resources. The first resources one needs to own are one’s feelings.
For reasons unknown to me, my mood is prone to fall every afternoon when I return to the shelter and first sit down on my bunk. As I indicated earlier, left to its own devices, this mood would most certainly carry me away into all sorts of negative thoughts about my past and future, distant from the here and now. I find that if I bring my attention back to exactly the mundane activities I’m engaged in — getting out my medicines, putting my valuables away, preparing for the shower — the depression vanishes at once, and I am free to feel any way I choose.
Ought vs. is: the broken cosmos
Embracing what is can be difficult in part because what is and what ought to be aren’t the same.
Events occur that ought not be possible in the real world.
There ought not be any such thing as an unwanted child.
The difference between is and ought can lead one to feel that the universe is broken.
Tayler seems to feel that the cosmos is broken in that there exist people who believe.
In The Crucified God, Jurgen Moltmann takes on the history of Christian dogmatism, showing that it manifests the unending human effort to “close the system” (Luther: curvatus in se), to connect all the dots and thus eliminate uncertainty and assure that what human beings think ought to be, is. He demonstrates that this is humanly impossible, and that, per the Gospel, the healing of the wound — whether the cosmic brokenness or the brokenness of one’s own life — can only come through accepting grace.
Where does grace come from?
As a theist, Moltmann has his answer. I can’t expect atheists to accept it.
Healing the world
Joel 2:13 specifies a God such as Christopher Hitchens refuses to believe anyone can believe in; yet the Bible says this. It says, “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
One’s God normally being a projection of oneself, the real question is not whether God is gracious, but whether you are gracious; not whether God has mercy, but whether you have mercy; not whether God loves, but whether you love. On questions like this turns your participation in the world we are creating together, whether one of bloodshed or of peace.
It can be a world where people are gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
A world where every child is wanted.
The human spirit is vast and inertial. I anticipate no global movement. I anticipate no Golden Age. But for us, for now, we can do this. It is within our reach.
One can’t afford to be too disappointed upon learning that one has not connected all the dots.
The author of Psalm 8 said in part (“You” here is God.):
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals, that you care for them?
Yet you have made them little lower than angels, and
crowned them with glory and honor.
Awe in the face of the unknown may be the healthiest of all human postures.
Originally posted 2015-03-14.