On Fathers and Their Children

Dear Father,

I was locked in an interesting discussion the other day with a friend back at home. Having recently discovered that I had left the House completely and was not, as I’d let most of my friends and family believe, simply checking out another wing in the vast domicile, she had taken to evangelising to my wayward soul. Where our conversations were normally about our mundane and carefree lives they quickly became about you and the Brother-Saviour, about coming back home and giving my life back to best Father in the universe. Very many times she failed to understand the depth of my doubt, often telling me that I was simply being difficult, that I would believe if I really wanted to. She is not the first person I have heard this from. Many of your children, it seems, genuinely do not understand how some of us could fail to believe. They think it is simply a matter of choice, that our lack of faith comes from a purposeful effort to undermine you, and not a genuine position of ignorance and confusion. Perhaps this is why many of the people I have spoken to about my predicament have failed to turn me back to you. There appears to be a fundamental disconnect between all of us, a wall that stops believers from truly empathising with those of us that have gone beyond the golden gates.

Our conversation on that day was about freedom and its consequences. As you know one of the central issues that drove me from home is the presence of evil in the world you have made. My friend had just finished extolling the beauties of nature, the magnanimity of our Father, a being that loved the world so much he suffered and died for it. And I asked her – much as I ask myself on many occasions, and as Doubt asks me on the days I am feeling more amenable towards you – I asked her about the people currently suffering through famine in the continent of my ancestors. There are children there, who despite the best efforts of their brethren (some of whom neither know you, nor care about you) will be born, only to die shortly after from disease and starvation. There are those who have known only pain and poverty their entire lives, with nary an inkling of joy. I asked about the war-torn regions in the Middle East, where the children of the Star and the Crescent are locked in what appears to be constant war; where extremists, marching in the name of someone that bears a striking resemblance to you, are murdering people by the thousands, intent that all on this earth bow to their holy vision. I asked about these things and she said, almost nonplussed, “Did Father do any of those?”

In her mind, as in the minds of almost all the children in the House, you have given us free will and so are absolved of all responsibility for the actions perpetrated under this freedom. I was wrong, she said emphatically, to blame you for the deeds of your children.

Ignoring my trials (and failures) at grasping the true meaning of free will, her question brought me to an almost stunning realisation. None of your children would treat their children the way you have treated us. Think for a moment Father, on how parents (the good ones, at any rate) raise their children. An earthly father does not see his two infant sons fighting, with one in real danger of killing the other, and shrug it off, claiming that they possess the freedom to do as they please. An earthly mother does not see her baby waddling towards a burning flame and allow it, claiming that the baby has chosen the fire and so she will respect its choices. Even if the child had already burned itself and still sought to approach the fire no parent would justify leaving it to the flames; no parent would say that because the child really wanted to burn they would let it.

The way we treat our children is centred around circumventing their freedoms, because we see quite clearly that their minds cannot use these freedoms properly. We make our homes childproof; we mash their food into tiny little bits; we swaddle them with the softest clothing. They are young and foolish and fragile, and that is how we, in our love for them, treat them.

But they are children, came my friend’s swift reply. We can distinguish between right and wrong; we know what’s good for us; we are not children. But once again I could not agree with her. Of course when compared with our children we are not children. But when compared to you we are even less than children. The differential between your intellect and ours is far, far greater than that between ours and our kids. And in spite of the fact that the children we birth eventually make it to maturity, we never stop trying to prevent the harm they cause. In my musings on justice I made the point that in its idealisation the justice of your children would aim to prevent harm, using punishment only as a deterrent and not as a tool of vengeance. When our police hear of a potential murder they do not shrug it off and claim that the participants are free. No; they do everything in their power to stop that murder from happening.

And yet it seems our Father in heaven, who loves us far more than we can ever know, refuses to afford us the same courtesy. You know, Father, that we are weak. You know that even when we have the best intentions we still fail. You know that some of us, for whatever reason, do not even have the best intentions. And yet you have not stopped the dictators from murdering millions, the warlords from grabbing children from their homes and shoving guns into their arms. The free will excuse seems immensely shallow because no loving Father, in full knowledge of the limitations of his children, would allow them to destroy themselves so wantonly, especially when the countless threats of the fiery pit down below have done little to quell their bloodlust and violence.

As expected my friend refused to see my point, insisting that the freedom you have given us trumps all else, that somehow, even though we are less than children before your awesome eyes, we are still to blame for the terrible things we foolishly do to one another. Perhaps she is right. Perhaps fathers everywhere would do well to follow in the example of the greatest Father of them all. I suspect the recent holiday commemorating fathers would have taken on a very different tone if this were the case, however. I doubt any one of us, burned and scarred by the flames, could find it in our hearts to celebrate such fathers.

With love,

Your Prodigal Son

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On Doubt and Faith

Dearest Father,

I must apologise for my immensely long silence. Unfortunately the duties of your son grow with each passing day, leaving me little time to sit and ponder our relationship, less still to scribble a missive in your name. I am sorry I missed the important days of the past season. I did not write you on Holy Thursday or Good Friday, or even Easter Sunday. I had much to say on each of those days, questions to ask as always, and feelings to express. But my duties (and, I must admit, a smidgen of human laziness) kept me from putting pen to paper. I did pray on the Day of Resurrection, however, not one of the many perfunctory prayers we Universals learn in the Catechism and from the Simple Prayer Book, but a deep and heartfelt prayer for my soul and my doubt and the pain in the world around me. I hope my ephemeral words reached your ears. I have seen no improvement in any of the situations I mentioned in my prayer, but we are told that you work in mysterious ways. When the letters I have been writing for over a year have received nary a response from you, I cannot feign surprise that you haven’t answered my less permanent whispers.

A lot has changed in the weeks past, and a lot has remained the same. My journey and my thoughts have carried me further still from you. Much like I did before my long break I feel that the likelihood of my return diminishes with each step I take. However, unlike the last two times I wrote you I find myself filled with less guilt and less anger. The guilt is gone because I did decide to sacrifice food as well as meat for this year’s Season of Preparation (the first time in ages I have been able to afford the latter), and the anger is gone because I’ve found it very difficult to keep negative emotions on my mind. My earthly duties have taken focus away from the House and the inscrutable machinations of my Father, and with that focus went my horror and anger on my many discoveries on free will and justice. As I write you today I feel calm and at peace. I have no brazen questions, no incredulous inquiries. I am simply writing. I do, however, have something I wish to share with you Father, and it concerns my only constant companion on this journey: Doubt.

The other day, at one of the House outposts I frequent when I wish to feel closer to home, the elder administering the ceremony gave a little homily on doubt, or more accurately, faith. You see Father in my young, binary mind I had always viewed the two things as stark opposites, separate sides of the same coin. One could not doubt if he had faith; one could not have faith if he doubted. The elder, however, brought to mind something I suspect I have known all my life but failed to consider, and that is that we are all possessed, at various points in our lives, with various levels of doubt and faith. For some, he said, faith is easy. They have little to no questions. They simply need to hear the words from your lips, or from lips they consider to be a good enough surrogate to yours, and they accept. Such people have trusting hearts and believing minds. Such people perhaps have the blind faith that has inspired churches and hymns across the history of the House. Others are rigid sceptics, requiring proofs and reassurances and works of wonder before they commit their hearts to a cause. There have been a few of these mentioned in your Book, ranging from the judge that required some fleece to both be soaked and dry at sunrise, to the famous Thomas that wished to see and touch the wounds of the Brother-Saviour before believing in his return. And instead of castigating the sceptics and admonishing them to try harder to adhere to the perfect ideal of unquestioning trust, the elder applauded their doubt, congratulated their willingness to believe. Doubt, he said, was as much a part of the human spirit as faith, and when used wisely, properly, could cause one’s faith to blossom and grow into a thing worthy to behold. We all stumble, he assured, smiling at those seated before him. To expect pure and unshakeable faith is to expect failure, and our all-knowing Father in heaven does not expect failure.

Going further on this train of compatibility the elder proclaimed that our doubts and the faiths they nurtured were products of our communities. Surround ourselves with encouraging believers, not the harsh ones that scold us for not believing, or the smug ones that spurn us for asking questions, and our faiths were sure to grow. Surround ourselves with inquisitive minds, with people that refuse to be led by the neck to whatever cause the elder of the day seemed to be championing, and our faiths would be made even more resilient to the tests and trails the future held. Our doubts don’t just depend on us, he said. They depend on our friends.

His words were comforting Father, perhaps because that was his intent. They gave me hope, hope that if I were to stumble on just the right pack of people, with just the right mix of childlike wonder and justified scepticism my companion would shrink to the manageable heights of long ago. I would be remiss if I did not say that on that day Doubt tried to counter all the elder’s assertions. I would also be remiss if I did not say that I nodded in agreement to some of his points. But as is always the case when I take a break from writing you Father I have returned with hope anew. For now I wish to believe that all I need is the right community, the right companions, to set me on the right path back to your arms, and I will allow myself to hope that your eternal silence has simply been because you have been preparing such a group for my arrival. After all, what good Father would ignore his son for so long?

With faith,

Your Prodigal Son

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On the Power of Guilt

Dearest Father,

As you well know, we are once again in the Season of the Fast. It seems like barely any time has passed since I wrote you about the last season, and I am certain that it won’t be long before I find myself yammering away about the next Season of the Fast, wondering what happened to the year in between. Such is the way of our childish minds; time seems to fly when we give it little attention, and appears to crawl when we focus on it most intently.

I almost missed the bells this time. So far have I travelled that the sound barely resonated in my ears. I was actually stunned by how little I was affected by the noise. There was a time when the sound of the bell would have evoked strong emotions in my heart, when I would have been compelled to face the Season with all the solemnity deserving of your trials in the wilderness. There was a time when I would have prepared for the arrival of the Season days in advance, eagerly awaiting the bestowment of ash upon my forehead so that I could mark time till the celebration of the resurrection of the Brother-Saviour. Such a time is long gone, dearest Father, for I almost entirely forgot about the Season this year, and I when I did hear the bells, it was with heavy reluctance that I dragged myself to a House outpost to participate in the receiving of ashes.

I am sure you are not surprised by this, Father. The past months have seen me devolve ever so slowly into condemning what I perceive to be the flawed and counterintuitive manner in which you have made and ruled our world. With my mind drawing farther from you is it any wonder that my heart has started to do the same? Among the greatest motivations claimed by your children for their worship is love. Where others claim to be cowed into submission by your awesomeness and power, or cajoled into acceptance by promises of paradise, your children say that they are with you because you love them and they you. They say that your love is the reason for everything around them, that your love is all that they need to live and breathe. As you can tell from the tone and topics of my letters past, I have looked upon your world and my poor eyes are finding it very difficult to see this song-inspiring love all your children seem to speak about. Perhaps if I were a child of the Crescent or the Star such an absence would have had no bearing on my closeness to you, but in a House built on love it is little wonder that it has left a sour taste in my mouth.

Of course the fact that my heart has been drifting from you did not prevent me from receiving the ash many days ago. And the fact that my ire has been raised towards you has not prevented me from wondering once again what to give up in these 40 days. Try as I may dearest Father I cannot shake off the biting guilt that I am doing something wrong by not fasting this holy season. I am angry with you, distant from you, unsure of whether or not I shall ever return to you. I have questioned everything in the doctrines that the House and the Family have told me about you. Even last year, when I was much closer to home, I pondered on the effectiveness of the Brother-Saviour’s sacrifice and in so doing drew into question the point of the entire season and the celebrations that it preceded. And yet, even as I tell myself that I owe you nothing until my questions are answered, I still cannot ignore the pangs in my chest from ignoring tradition. I feel as though I am betraying not just you by failing to observe the Season’s solemnities, but myself as well, and try as I may I cannot convince myself otherwise. My heart, it seems, is set in its guilt.

Perhaps it is my devout upbringing speaking. Perhaps it is the effect of years upon years of Universal Family training via the Catechism, and the host of prayers I had to memorise as I child. Perhaps it is in fact you that is talking to me, in one of the famously ambiguous (and quite frankly ineffective) ways many claim you speak to your children. Or perhaps it is the famed guilt all children of the Universal Family claim to possess, even those like me that have strayed far from home.

It matters not, dearest Father, for regardless of its cause this guilt has kept me up at night and caused me a lot of bother. I have considered simply defaulting to fasting from food as I did last year, but Doubt has warned that such a sacrifice would be hollow for I already go 12 hours between meals quite frequently. I do not know what to do, but I know that this compulsion will not cease until my guilt is sated.

I find it most strange that this guilt has had such sway over me these past few days. It would be funny, would it not, if my guilt ends up being the reason I remain close to you, if even when faced with all I cannot accept and all I do not understand, I end up back in your arms in a desperate bid to hush the disquiet in my chest. One must wonder how many remain in the House not because they truly believe in your power and your love, but because they feel too guilty to take a step outside the gates.

With a guilty heart,

Your Prodigal Son

P.S. Please forgive the lateness of the letter, Father. I was to send it shortly after the Day of Ashes but my earthly duties have kept me quite busy and I haven’t had the time. Hopefully it arrives before the Season ends.

P.P.S. Doubt has suggested meat, Father. Do you think that is a worthy sacrifice from a heart mired in guilt?

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On the Choices of My Father

Dear Father,

The words Doubt spoke to me the last time I wrote have refused to leave my mind, and as the days have passed my head has been filled with even more terrors concerning your title as Great Arbiter. I am afraid his attempt to explain away the paradox of our freedom has backfired, for if I sounded lost and confused at the end of my last letter, I am far more lost now, and much more afraid.

You see Father, your power means that you are capable of anything. If you say that up is down, up becomes down. If you say that left is right, left becomes right. Faced with such power one realises that you can truly do whatever you want; there are no bounds or limits on the extent of your abilities. Before you existence is a blank slate, putty to be moulded in whatever shape your desire.

This means that you could have created any number of worlds where things were slightly different from this one, where, for example, the First Brother did not partake of the forbidden fruit, thus ensuring that he and his children remained in paradise for all eternity. But you did not. You could have made a world where even after his blatant disregard for your commands he was immediately forgiven and allowed to remain in the garden, but you did not. You could have created a world where nothing he ever did could have violated your will, where it was not his destiny to fall out of your favour and your paradise. But you did not. Faced with all these choices, all these universes, all these possibilities, you chose instead to make the First Brother in such a manner as to guarantee his failure. You chose not to forgive him for his transgressions but to cast him out. You chose not to allow his offspring, guilty of nothing but being born, to return to paradise. You chose to allow disease to flourish, to allow wars and famine and pain to exist for millennia before finally sending the Brother-Saviour, and even then you chose to take him away. You chose to make a universe in which the Brother-Saviour’s sacrifice did not immediately mean salvation, but one where we would have to wait two millennia (and counting) for another, final judgement, when you would cast all the children you damned before they were even born into the fiery pit made ready for them. These horrors are the things you chose.

Even more alarming is the fact that your status as the Great Arbiter is ongoing. You still have the power to speak things into being, to make something from nothing. You can still eradicate all disease with a wave of your hand, reform all sinners, end all wars. You can return as the Brother-Saviour tomorrow and establish a paradise for all men. These things are not out of reach; they are certainly not beyond your ability. All you need do is will them be and they will be. And yet the world around me remains the very same way it has always been. The people starving as I write these words will continue to starve. Those dying will continue to die. Those suffering will continue to suffer.

These are frightening thoughts, dearest Father, for they mean that you are actively choosing to be bring suffering to your children, to watch while they struggle in the harsh world you have given them. This is manifest cruelty, for not only did you make the world as it is, you are refusing to change it. You are allowing the very evil you created to grow and spread, to fester and flourish.

Our independence may be questionable Father, but yours is without doubt; you will not be our Father without it. And if this world, an existence free of freedom and mired in suffering, is what you have chosen for your children, how can we call you good? How can we look to you for guidance? How can we think on your image and rejoice? Yours is not a face of love, but a face of brutality, and thinking on the kind of mind that could do all this and call it good, I am filled with a fear most visceral…

My once little friend is silent, Father; even he has no counter to this.

With fear and trembling,

Your Prodigal Son

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On Words and their Meanings

Dearest Father,

As you have probably surmised, my discoveries on free will and justice have not exactly set me ablaze with love for you. Where I sought to discover the freedom in your children that absolved you of the harshness of your justice, I found instead puppets and strings, little subjects moving to the whims of their master. I have thought long and hard on what these conclusions mean for my prospects of returning home, and I must say Father that it does not look good. I do not understand the crude nature of your justice, but if your children are not freely choosing to turn their backs on you, how is their punishment fair? How can you condemn them to an eternity of suffering when they are simply fulfilling the very destinies you created for them?

Of course I would be remiss if I did not mention that my once little friend has not been silent as I have thought these thoughts and asked these questions. He has tried all too often to find flaws with the reasoning that brought me to this point, and he has failed at almost every turn. One of his statements, however, has stuck with me these past few days and it is one I wish to share with you. I do not think he has found a way to give me hope though; in fact the implications of his words may have served to drive me even further away from the House I once called home.

His words to me were thus:

“You cannot say that your Father is not just, or that you are not free, because he has said that he is, and that you are. He is the Great Arbiter; his word is truth.”

If you remember Father, in our bid to discover the meaning of truth we realised that a lot of what we took as fact was nothing but simple arbitration, statements that appeared to make sense but lacked the proof that would reveal their real truth value. We concluded then that absent verification all statements must remain arbitration, neither true nor false but open for discovery and deliberation. We also concluded that even under such rules you remain untouchable, for you are the Great Arbiter; your arbitrations become truth from the sheer force of your will.

We referenced this viewpoint when we discussed free will. Unwilling to accept that you were a simple machine, bound to always pick the good option when presented with a choice, we surmised that you must be above good and evil. You made good and evil; whatever you dictate to be good becomes good. Whatever you dictate to be evil becomes evil.

Applying the same concept to justice and free will gives you the crux of Doubt’s statement to me. You are the Great Arbiter. Whatever you define to be free is free; whatever you define to be just is just. I cannot claim that your justice is unjust. It is your justice; it cannot help but be just. I cannot claim that our freedom is bondage. It is your gift; we cannot help but be free.

If one ignores the powerfully circular nature of this argument it would appear that Doubt has floored me completely. But as I mentioned before his statements only served to drive me further from you, as the true implications of this point seem almost too terrible contemplate.

I would like you to consider what his statement really means, Father. It means that we cannot, not now, not ever, know what anything means. Your children, of limited minds and hearts, have (for as long as we can tell) used signs and sounds to communicate. When we say or do certain things there is a tacit agreement amongst us for what those things mean, or what they are supposed to mean. It is this agreement that has enabled to us to form societies. Without it even your noble House would not have been built, as the children that remained after the Brother-Saviour would not have been able to communicate with the world and spread your word. This tacit agreement is what allows us to have general feelings (if not outright definitions) for such words as good, evil, love, freedom, and justice. Now these definitions may vary from culture to culture, from House to House, but within these cultures and these Houses they are generally agreed upon. The very existence and survival of their institutions depends on this.

Now consider yourself, dearest Father. We are told that you love us. That all the other Fathers and Mothers and Uncles and Aunts in all the other Houses are not only false, but that they do not love us the way you do. Only you truly cares. Only you truly wants what’s best for us. These messages, coupled with the sacrifice of the Brother-Saviour, have been among the biggest reasons that many have been brought to the House, and that many have stayed within it. And accompanying these statements is a fundamental understanding of the concept of love, of benefit, of harm. That which brings fulfilment is borne of love, that which brings happiness is beneficial, and that which causes suffering and pain is harmful. You are none of the latter, Father, and all of the former, or so we are told.

Against this one looks at the world born from your lips and sees pain and suffering, fear and hurt, bondage and predetermination. We see a justice apparently motivated by as much negativity and spite as the crude offerings of your flawed children. We see punishment for punishment’s sake, pain for no other reason than pain itself. We see children created solely for salvation, and others only for damnation. And if we are to believe that you are the Great Arbiter, and that you have termed these things good and loving and just, then we must also believe that this pain and suffering, this our lack of freedom, is indeed good and loving and just.

Thus the words that we use to communicate the love and justice and freedom and happiness that we believe come from your House are apparently meaningless, for they can have their meanings changed at will. They can mean one thing and their complete opposite at the same time, for you have spoken it. Does freedom today mean bondage? Does it mean predestination? Does it mean captivity? Does good today mean genocide? Does it mean the condemnation of little children for the sins of their fathers? We cannot, of our own admittedly feeble faculties, say. We must first consult with you, and hope that you deign to bestow upon us your answers.

Perhaps more terrifying is the fact that this means that a good amount of the people called to your House have had the wrong impression about you from the very beginning. It is hard to believe that those that heard about your all-encompassing love believed that within that love lay the capacity to create some children solely for the purpose of burning them. No loving parent on your green earth would do such a thing, yet a quick study of your world and a short perusal of your Book reveals such acts in great detail.

Of course there are some within the House that believe that our lack of understanding comes from the less than perfect nature of our minds, but this, much like the assertions made with regards to the First Brother’s faculties, does not vindicate the state of your world. Ignoring our apparent lack of freedom this would mean that the salvation of a good chunk of your children is purely circumstantial. If our fundamental understanding of love and justice, the intuition with which we analyse the world, is not complete due to our failings, then there is nothing but chance to dictate who comes to you of his own volition. The very tools we have to understand what you do and why you do it are flawed. That anyone comes to you in the first place is a wonderful combination of luck and opportunity, and that people fail to understand your ways should be expected. In fact, if one looks upon the various Houses and tents and institutions the world over, all separate and distinct from the House of the Cross, this is exactly what we see: a vast majority of your children that simply does not get you. And yet true to form you have taken it upon yourself to condemn these people, and to cast them out of your sight. And this is good, Father, because you have said that it is.

And therein lies the problem with the belief in you as the Great Arbiter, dearest Father, for if your justice, an institution barely distinguishable from that of the lowest of your children, is in fact fair and good and loving, then those words have lost their meaning. And if our freedom, a state barely distinguishable from the pre-arranged motions of actors in a scripted play, is in fact freedom, then that word has lost its meaning as well. And if words can lose their meaning at your whim Father then what is the point of even trying to understand you? What has been the point of my journey, my quest for both you and the great Sophia? In a single moment this very page could mean something completely different simply because you willed it to be so!

I suppose in the end my journey truly is nothing but a pointless exercise. After all, Father, wasn’t my fate already decided before I was born?

With sadness,

Your Prodigal Son

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