Black or White? The Sunset Limited

"Black" and "White"

“Two players. Two sides. One is light. One is dark.” The quote comes from Lost, but it’s a perfect epitaph for The Sunset Limited, a stage play by Cormac McCarthy, and now also an HBO film.

The Sunset Limited has only two characters, named simply “Black” and “White.” Early on it becomes apparent that Black had been on his way to work, waiting on the platform at the train station, when White had attempted to throw himself in front of the train. Black had caught him, stopped him, and brought him home to his apartment. The play itself consists of the two characters engaged in a verbal wrestling match for an intense ninety minutes.

White is a professional intellectual – Black calls him “Professor,” and he is clearly better at stringing the words together than Black, an ex-con and reformed murderer who lives in the ghetto in hopes of being a sort of Good Samaritan to the hopeless lost (he calls them “the junkies”).

The two debate the existence of God (Black believes; White doesn’t), the meaning of life (to Black, it’s about God; to White, there is no meaning to life), the reality of suffering (to Black, suffering is real, but has a purpose and an end; to White, all of life is vain suffering, a cruel joke, and death is the sickly sweet, desired end to it all).

Throughout it all, White has a dazed, haunted look about him. Whereas Black can break out into a raucous laughter at his own silly joke, White can only laugh the despondent, despairing cackle of a man who’s given up all hope of anything making sense.

Dialectically, Black is no match for White. But he possesses a simple wisdom about life that transcends all of White’s big words and long sentences. With obvious anguish, Black pleads with White to, “Stay with me a while,” “Let’s talk some more,” all the while hoping that White will open himself up to God and find the great relief and release that follows that simple act of the will. White won’t do it – whether he cannot or will not, it’s hard to say. In the end, it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t do it. All he wants to do is die and end his absurd, miserable, meaningless existence.

This week marks Passover, when Jews commemorate the Angel of Death passing over all the firstborn of the Jews in Egypt. At God’s command, every Jewish family sacrificed a lamb and placed the blood on their door frames. When the Angel of Death came through, he saw the blood and “passed over” their homes, but every Egyptian firstborn was slain. The following day, Moses led the Jews out of Egypt, in plain view of the Egyptians who were mourning their dead.

The events of the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy take place after all this happens. It basically consists of one long sermon from Moses to the people of Israel. If you were to summarize it in one sentence, it might go something like this: “Serve God and you will have life. Reject God, and death will have you.” Consider this sober prediction concerning the one who rejects God. “You will find no repose, no resting place for the sole of your foot. There the LORD will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart. You will live in constant suspense, filled with dread both night and day, never sure of your life. In the morning you will say, ‘If only it were evening!’ and in the evening, ‘If only it were morning!’ – because of the terror that will fill your hearts and the sights that your eyes will see.”

An ‘anxious mind,’ ‘eyes weary with longing,’ and ‘a despairing heart filled with dread day and night.’ That is White. He’s rejected God, and death has him. All that’s left is for him to finish himself off, making the choice complete.

This week is also Easter, when Christians, to whom Jesus is the Passover lamb of sacrifice, celebrate the great feat of redemption, not from the physical bondage of slavery in Egypt, but from the bondage of sin and slavery to a meaningless existence. The wholly redeemed life is signified by the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead which took place three days after Passover when he – the Passover lamb – was sacrificed. Life, purpose, meaning … That is Black. He has simply responded to God, acknowledged God, and he has life.

Death or life. Some things really are black and white. “Two players. Two sides. One is light. One is dark.” Which one will you choose?

Let’s Rally for Reason

“Don’t be surprised to find out that there are atheists and agnostics in your midst,” Ted said to me, after railing against the evils of organized religion. I got the impression he expected some kind of visible reaction from me.

But I wasn’t surprised. He’d already said he was a humanist. The two kind of go together. Besides, I’m not horrified over atheists. I took the bait. You wanna discuss atheism, Ted? Let’s discuss atheism. “So, I get that you have problems with organized religion, Ted. But human organizations aside, do you believe there is a God? Or do you believe there is not a God?”

Ted didn’t give me a straightforward answer, though. Instead he referred me to Sam Harris, one of his “favorite authors and Freethinkers,” who takes issue with some Catholic teachings and other Christian ideas about God. That was fine for Sam Harris, but Ted didn’t answer for himself. So I repeated the question.

This time he answered. “I don’t believe there is a God,” he said, and followed up with a caricature of Christianity. “I don’t believe there is a supreme being that created the universe; and sits in heaven and watches every movement and monitors the thoughts of every human. I see very clearly the problems of organized religion…the hypocrisies, the greed, the sadistic, bullying behavior.”

Now I had something to work with. In the language of basic logic of reasoning from premises (P) to conclusions (C), I reflected his own reasoning back to him. “Ok, Ted, correct me if I’m wrong. From what I’m hearing, your reasoning goes something like this:

P: People associated with organized religion have engaged in objectionable behavior.
C: Therefore, there is no God.”

Since he’d quoted Sam Harris, I did the same for Harris’s reasoning. “And Sam Harris’s reasoning goes something like this:

P: The character traits of God as presented by some organized religions are objectionable to me.
C: Therefore, there is no God.”

At this, Ted clarified himself a bit. He was a “science guy,” and God, if he exists, is either “impotent…or evil.” And then he was ready to be done with it. “But, enough about what I think,” he said, and he shifted the subject to something else.

This exchange illustrates something about non-theists, whether they call themselves humanists, agnostics, atheists, freethinkers, or whatever label they prefer. At root, the atheist’s position is intellectually unsound.

Here’s another example:

Ivan: “I’m definitely an atheist. I am an atheist because I cannot believe in fantasy. There is no God. There is no Heaven. There is no Hell. That stuff was created by man to help man feel better about himself. When I look at the scientific facts, I cannot believe in that. So yes, I am an atheist. Absolutely.”

Terrell: “Which scientific facts?”

Ivan read off statistics about the size of the universe, emphasizing its vastness. “To think that there’s some type of supreme being, call it God or Jesus, that is bigger than that? That is concerned about us on earth? About our welfare? About our future? It’s absolutely preposterous,”

Ivan’s reasoning went like this:

P: The universe is really huge.
C: Therefore, there is no God.

Like Ted, Ivan considers himself a “science guy.”

Well, I like science, too. And, sure, the size of the universe is a marvel. But it says nothing about the existence or non-existence of God. Nothing, whatsoever. Soon, Ivan was ready to call it quits too. “I believe that at some point, people end up with firm convictions,” he wrote to me in an e-mail. “Their viewpoints should be respected and further attempts to convert them should be avoided because not everybody wants to be converted.”

Ahh, now we have arrived at the heart of the matter: Not everybody wants to be converted. These two exchanges expose the heretofore hidden reality that Ted and Ivan have made a personal, philosophical faith choice to disbelieve. Believers need to remember this and press those vocal non-theists to make their case. The prevailing posture among atheism says the atheistic worldview is more intellectually sound and evolutionarily advanced—that atheism is the belief anyone would come to if he merely examined the scientific facts, all other belief systems being vestiges of Stone Age superstition on a par with moon worship and child sacrifice. But it’s not. Get the facts out in the open and it becomes pretty obvious. Theism stands. Atheism falls. Because there really is a God who created the universe.

The smart atheists seem to know this. Tom Gilson invited David Silverman, president of American Atheists, to co-sponsor an open, reasoned debate at the Reason Rally which will take place this weekend. He declined. William Lane Craig invited Richard Dawkins to debate. He declined.

Nevertheless, unreason notwithstanding, the Reason Rally will go on this weekend. Take it as an invitation to reason together with the non-theists in our midst. Theism is up to the challenge. Atheism isn’t.

Related Readings

Will there be any reasoning at the American Atheists “Reason Rally”?

American Atheists are having a rally this Saturday in Washington D.C., so Christian apologist Tom Gilson sent them a message asking if they would be interested in hosting a debate at their “Reason Rally” between a theist and an atheist.

He wrote this:

Dear Mr. Silverman,

Greetings to you… [mention of mutual friend],

I’m writing to ask if you would be interested in sharing sponsorship with me in giving Richard Dawkins and William Lane Craig one more opportunity to share a stage together in debate, while Dr. Dawkins is here in the U.S. later this month. I’m leading the True Reason project, which, as you may or may not be aware, is bringing Christians to the Reason Rally for respectful dialogue with attendees there. Additionally, this morning we released an ebook that has already climbed to best-seller status in the atheism category at Amazon.com, and has attracted enough notice that I’ve been asked to write an op-ed on it for the Washington Post.

I mention these things simply to give you some confidence that I’m representing a legitimate potential debate sponsorship partner to work on this with you and American Atheists. Dr. Craig is again wiling to meet Dr. Dawkins in debate. I have a contact at Georgetown University that would work with us to provide a venue for debate. Would you be open to joining me in inviting Richard Dawkins?

I’ll look forward to hearing you.

Regards,

Tom Gilson
www.thinkingchristian.net

And the American Atheists President David Silverman replied with this:

Mr. Gilson,

The Reason Rally is an event by and for the nonreligious population and their supporters. It is not an opportunity for Christians to push themselves into other people’s lives (yet again). I would never support infiltrating a Christian event with atheists on some kind of recruitment mission – that would be horribly rude.

Make no mistake – you are not welcomed guests at the rally. We are not going to DC for ‘dialogue’ with people who believe ridiculous things – we are going to have fun with other like-minded people. Those who proselytize or interfere with our legal and well-deserved enjoyment will be escorted to the 1st Amendment pen by security, which will be plentiful, where you can… shout yourselves hoarse.

Spreading out among the crowd is not a substitute for a permit. Indeed, I will be meeting with the Parks Commission on Thursday to discuss how to handle your infiltrative permitless counter-protest.

Dr. Dawkins has made it clear that he doesn’t want to debate Mr. Craig. I am not sure how much clearer he (or I) could be.

Sincerely,
David Silverman
President
American Atheists, Inc.

American Atheists doesn’t seem to be in favor of having conversations and debates with those who disagree with them, do they? In fact, it doesn’t sound like they are interested in hearing any reasons for other people’s views, or giving any reasons for their own views.

Consider this post on the American Atheists web site. (The PDF is saved here because they’ve withdrawn the post, but you can still see it with Google Cache)

Excerpt:

It should come as no surprise that the individuals who abide by fundamentalist Christian… doctrines would be the first to cry out that they are being persecuted when their dangerous, damaging and disingenuous beliefs come under attack. Most of these people lack the maturity and intelligence to act in a socially acceptable manner.  Many of them are sociopaths and quite a good number of them are psychopaths.  All of them are clearly delusional.

The fact is that fundamentalist Christians… are not interested in coexisting or getting along.  They have no desire for peace. They do not want to sit down with us in diplomatic efforts to iron out our differences and come to an agreement on developing an integrated society.

They want us to die.

Their interpretation of the Bible… are such that there is no other course of action but to kill the infidel, and if anyone believes otherwise they are only fooling themselves.  It is not just in the best interests of atheists to be intolerant of fundamental Christianity and radical Islam, but it is also in the best interest of mainstream believers within these faiths, as well.  Moderates and even Progressives who stand in support of extremists just because there is a claim to the same deity are not doing themselves any favors.  Fundamental Christians make all Christians look bad…

…the underbelly of fundamentalist Christianity… does not operate in the legal system. They don’t respond to lawsuits, letters, amicus briefs or other grass-roots campaigns and they must, must, must be eradicated.

That doesn’t sound very tolerant or open-minded.  It was written by “Al Stefanelli – Georgia State Director, American Atheists, Inc.”. Now, this isn’t the view of most atheists that I know, but it is the view of some organized atheists like those in the American Atheists group.

What do they mean by eradicating Christianity?

From the correspondence with Tom Gilson, we now know that they don’t want a conversation and they refuse to hear both sides in a debate. So they aren’t trying to eradicate Christian ideas by winning conversations or winning debates. What does that leave as a meaning of the phrase “eradicating Christianity”? Can we infer what they mean by “eradicating Christianity” from the e-mail sent by David Silverman? Could it be that eradicating Christianity means using coercion to suppress beliefs that atheists disagree with, so that they won’t be offended while they are busy having a good time? That seems to be consistent with what Al Stefanelli and David Silverman said, but it’s just my guess.

Now consider this post from the UK Daily Mail which discusses a recent interview with Richard Dawkins.

Excerpt:

But the centrepiece of this Christmas edition is the main coup for the New Statesman – an interview by Prof. Dawkins with Christopher Hitchens, the great polymath who today lost his fight against cancer. It’s a fascinating read over three double-page spreads. Not least because Prof. Dawkins reveals a charming humility, allowing Hitchens to show his intellectual superiority at his own expense. Hitchens is thoughtful about CS Lewis and Christianity and rather leaves Prof. Dawkins floundering in his wake, occasionally interjecting little assents to show that he’s still there, as he struggles to keep up.

But one of these interjections is most revealing. About half-way through, the Prof gets this in edgeways: ‘Do you ever worry that if we win and, so to speak, destroy Christianity, that vacuum would be filled by Islam?’

So, ‘if we win…and destroy Christianity’. True, there’s a ‘so to speak’ in there, but it doesn’t do much. Try ‘If we win and, so to speak, kill all the Jews’ as an alternative. Doesn’t really work, does it? And Prof Dawkins can hardly claim that he was misquoted or taken out of context. He was editing the magazine, after all – there’s even a picture of him doing so, pen poised masterfully over page proofs.

Again, that seems to me to be echoing the language of the the American Atheist person who wanted to eradicate Christianity. Indeed, Dawkins is not a very timid fellow. In this video, he expresses his support for infanticide, which most people view as equivalent to murder. I don’t think he means “destroy Christianity” intellectually, since he refused his chance to do that when he refused to debate William Lane Craig, as documented in the liberal UK Guardian. I think he means something else by “destroy Christianity”, but I’m not exactly clear what. Let’s hope it’s something different than what other atheists have meant by it in history.