Having your cake and eating it too

Posted Nov. 26, 2010, at 5:39 p.m.

There are many advantages to being married, but perhaps the greatest advantage of all is getting to attend two Thanksgiving meals every year. In years past, this was actually a little daunting, as we would have to eat both meals on the same day. This year, however, we got to eat one meal on Thursday and another on Friday. It worked out quite nicely.

Rarely do you get to have your cake and eat it, too, which is essentially what Thanksgiving is like for me every year. Life is almost always about making choices. Which side of the family you spend the holidays with. Whether you eat that extra slice of pumpkin pie. Whether you exercise or take a nap. Whether you go to church or sleep in. Whether you buy yourself a new television or start saving for retirement. Which charities you contribute to. Whether to contribute to any charity at all. Who you vote for. And so on.

The problem is that making choices is hard. It’s difficult to know which choice is the right choice, and even in the cases that you do know, you often make the wrong choice anyway. As Paul wrote in Romans, “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.”

Modern Christianity offers up a couple of would-be solutions to this problem. The first deals with the idea of salvation. Much of modern Protestantism has sought to remove works entirely from the process of salvation and, in so doing, more or less has boiled all questions of works down to a single choice: Will you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and savior?

Setting aside the question of whether this is good theology or not, it’s easy to the see the appeal of taking the infinite choices a person deals with in their life and reducing them to a single, all-important decision.

The problem is that even if you buy into this, it only obviates all your other choices on a metaphysical level. Deciding that Jesus is your savior doesn’t actually tell you anything about how to live now. The answer to whether you should eat that extra piece of pie is not, after all, “Jesus is Lord.”

In response to this problem, Christian pop culture has given us the “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelet. This is an expression of an older, more serious idea. During his life, Jesus was a moralistic prophet. The Sermon on the Mount is his most famous utterance, and it deals not one bit with his metaphysical essence. It is, instead, mostly about how people are supposed to live. And in the earliest days of the church, being a Christian was at least as much — and probably more — about living like Jesus lived as it was about metaphysics.

The problem we face today, however, is that Jesus lived an awfully long time ago and our record of his life is not particularly detailed. All we have is a few representative stories and some aphorisms. As such, it’s not always clear what Jesus would do in any given situation. Would Jesus eat that extra piece of pie? Well, he was a bit of a partier, but he also didn’t live long enough to have to deal with high cholesterol. So it could go either way, really.

In response to this problem, we have the idea of the Bible as an inerrant guidebook. The advantage to this is that it’s a lot more detailed than “What Would Jesus Do?” but still pretty theoretically simple. Have a question? Simply break out your concordance, do a little cross-referencing and the solution is at hand.

The reality is more complicated, of course. Again setting aside the theological implications of inerrancy, no one would deny that the Bible is a very old and complex work. It often fails to directly address the concerns we face today, and even when it does seem to address them, we have to take into account the historical context and the changing times. Likewise, the Bible isn’t always consistent. Should we eat that extra piece of pie? Well, we’re instructed against gluttony, but on the other hand, Ecclesiastes tells us to enjoy life and, again, Jesus was something of a partier. Maybe we should just eat half a slice?

None of this is to say that religion can’t help us be better people. Whatever problems the Bible may have as a guidebook, the stories and other works it contains provide a strong mythological and philosophical background. It may not tell us exactly what to do, but engaging with the Bible should challenge us to think about the choices we make in our lives.

Additionally, churches provide a community and structure that legitimately help people get better control of their lives. Studies have shown, for example, that people who attend church regularly tend to exercise more self-control. Nobody wants to be ostracized from their community, after all, and as long as the community is making good decisions, its members tend to make good decisions, too.

The problem with this, of course, is that communities don’t always make good decisions. And when your community is wrong about something, you’re likely to be wrong as well, even as you think you’re right. Sometimes doing the right thing means going against established norms and people you like and respect — and people you want to like and respect you.

Ultimately, after all, we have to decide for ourselves what choices we’re going to make. We can get some help along the way, but in the end it’s up to us. We have to determine how to interpret the ethical lessons of our stories. We have to decide whether the communities to which we belong are in the right. And we have to realize that we’re not always going to get it right, and we’re usually not going to get to have our cake and eat it too.

But look, it’s Thanksgiving weekend. Just eat the extra piece of pie.

Justin Fowler is a student at University College of Bangor. He may be reached at justin.fowler@maine.edu. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.

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