Thursday, February 4, 2016

Getting Sucker Punched by the Age of Accountability

Bear with me.  This story does have a point.

There was an incident with my daughter when she was just a baby - maybe 6 or 7 months old (she's 2 and a half years old now).

My wife and I had recently started giving her "people food" - oatmeal, rice cereal, puréed fruit and veggies, etc.  We’d buy the fresh food, cut it up, steam it, purée it, and scoop it into little containers that we'd keep in the refrigerator for later.  I actually quite enjoyed making it.

When you keep it in the refrigerator, you naturally want to warm it up.  Who likes cold puréed cauliflower?  Gross. It's key to not make it too hot.  That’s trickier than it seems though, because it only takes a few seconds in the microwave to sufficiently warm up an ounce or two.

And my daughter. So beautiful and innocent. She'd look at me and open her mouth as wide as she possibly could, fully trusting that whatever I put in her mouth would taste good, would be safe.  That it wouldn't hurt. She'd smile and coo.

I was normally VERY cautious about not overheating food. I'd mix it, taste it, blow on it, mix it some more, taste it again....

But one time I screwed up. I must have heated up the sweet potatoes for too long or not mixed them up well enough.  The moment that I put the spoon in her mouth and she closed her mouth, she jolted in her chair at the burning sensation, closed her eyes, and opened her mouth to scream. Because the pain was more than her tiny, growing brain could process, it took a few seconds for the scream to come. But after that moment of unholy silence it did come.

Most parents have probably done this. Even so, it's unnerving to see your child in pain.

But for some reason, in that moment, my thoughts traveled beyond the immediate context of a mild infant mouth burn and went all human destiny.  For reasons I can't quite understand, the sheer terror of hell that my own particular tradition had so meticulously and thoroughly placed within me took form, stood up, and stared back at me like a hooded grim reaper or Harry Potter’s dementor, sucking the life and happiness right out of me. The terror certainly hadn't been dormant within me prior to that moment. Far from it. Rather, it was a moment where a deep discomfort within me, a skepticism and distrust, a knowledge that my "faith system" was latent with irreconcilable tension and did not make sense of reality became unavoidably clear.

(Don't misunderstand me here. I'm not (in this post) making an argument - philosophical, theological, biblical, emotional, etc - for any of the issues that I mention.  Just a story of the experience and some of the immediate thoughts that I had).

In that moment I simply couldn't steer clear of the "infernalist" eschatological smackdown that underlies so much of my evangelical heritage.  No more excuses for it.  No avoiding it.  No rationalizations.  Just a cold hard acknowledgment of what it was.

I don’t know why the realization hit me in that specific moment.  How did I get from a baby burning the roof of her hell?  What??  Only religion could do this.  And this isn't "extremist" religion.  This is just paying attention in church.  Basic, fundamental stuff.

In that moment I saw a microcosm of what my own tradition believed was the eternal destiny of most of humanity.  A child (and each adult was once a child) incapable of processing the pain.  Nothing outside of the moment.  No past.  No future.

The Christianity that I was raised with contends that God is, in one way or another, the inflictor or sustainer of a pain directed at "unbelievers" that will endure forever and ever.  After 100 billion years you’re just getting started.  God irresistibly resurrects you, graciously provides you with a body that cannot be destroyed, sustains (or even enhances) your ability to feel pain, and then tortures you forever.  There is nobody to help you - nobody to appeal to, no defender.  The time has expired on whatever divine love there was for you, if there was ever any to begin with.  Mercy has passed. "Holiness" and wrath are thus made manifest in unending judgment.

This is very dark.  If it makes you should.  If it doesn' should.

Back to my little girl.  

Amidst this flood of thoughts and theology, my most concrete and primal thought was "This can't happen to my daughter. It's not possible.  Not my little girl. It can't."

She cried for a short time from the mouth burn, but her ordeal was soon over.  It was a fleeting moment. An accident. She’s just a little girl.  This eschatological fate doesn’t apply to little girls, right?

She hadn’t reached the “age of accountability” yet.  Phew.

Of course not all traditions believe in this “age of accountability”.  Calvin infamously said that that "there are babies a span long in hell."

This belief in infant damnation (a more commonly held belief than one might hope it to be in a “religion of love”) is just the result of consistently held doctrines of “original sin” and “election”.  No more, no less.  Simple. To these folks an infant is just as wicked and detestable in the eyes of God as any adult.  A massa damanta.

And yet I realized that the existence of an age of accountability, in the end, is no better.  

Nobody actually knows what this "age of accountability" actually is.....which seems mildly important. And the "biblical support” for such an idea is just silly.

In an "age of accountability" world, a child is born hurdling towards a magical age-threshold which, once crossed, causes some sort of irreversible existential change.  A child's “eternal destiny” is safe prior to reaching this threshold, but not after.  “Free will” apparently isn’t an inviolable obstacle to salvation for the Divine prior to crossing this threshold, but it becomes so afterwards.  Every new day, every heartbeat, is thus infinitely risky.  If you die as a baby, you’re “in”.  Period.  But after this threshold, there is a real possibility that you end up "out".

In fact, as human compassion and technological advancements have decreased infant mortality rates, we’ve actually succeeded in allowing more children to live beyond this "age of accountability".

You understand what I’m saying here?

It’s disgusting.  Vile.  Monstrous.  Madness.  It'll suck the life out of you.  But the logic of it is inexorable given the underlying beliefs.  And it isn't hard to find people who have acted according to this madness.

To the believing Christian masses, an “age of accountability” should serve as an indication that there is something very very wrong with a system that necessitates such a thing in the first place.  This must be faced.  It should cause us to rethink a few things about God and about ourselves.

The $64,000 question is, "Why doesn't it?  If one does indeed see the impossible hopelessness and tragedy of an "age of accountability", what sort of a "faith" looks the other way?"

For all the sleepless nights that have come (and are yet to come) as a result of looking closely and critically at what I believe (and I mean that quite literally), I'd still rather face it.

That's because in my better moments I believe there is a better Gospel.  I have to.

Christ have mercy.

All this from a teaspoon of overheated sweet potatoes.

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