Tuesday, February 15, 2011


A parable.

So there’s Gordon. In Heaven. Why? He has no idea - he’s a religious dissenter, after all. He’s holding a tray and is in a short, fast moving line in Heaven’s Cafeteria, which queues past a breathtaking waterfall. The day is sunny and a positively blissful 24 degrees centigrade. A live string quintet is playing a new composition by Mozart and Beethoven. As he approaches the counter, Gordon notices a small sign, written in gold. “Tomorrow’s special: Simon Peter’s catch of the day.” It’s an old joke, but everybody gets a good chuckle out of it.

Time has no meaning here, but Gordon keeps a day-planner anyway, because he’s always been a day-planner sort of guy. For today, it says:

8 AM Continental breakfast
9 AM Stroll on the beach
10 AM Ecstatic reunion with lost loved ones
12 PM Lunch
1 PM John Lennon and Elvis Presley in concert
2 PM Pedicure and foot massage
3 PM Nap
4 PM High Tea with Queen Victoria
5 PM New episodes of Firefly on Heaven-on-Demand
6 PM Dinner

He makes a mental note to get High Tea with Queen Victoria changed to burning.

Gordon gets to the front of the line to discover that God himself is serving today, which explains why things have been moving even more quickly than usual.
“What can I get you?” God asks. He’s wearing a big apron that says “Kiss the Cook!” and he sounds like Humphrey Bogart.
“What’s on for today?”
“Anything you want. Name it.”
“Whew...so many choices. Ummm...Pad Thai. And a side of McDonald’s French Fries. Oh, and a Cherry Coke.”
“I knew you’d say that. Coming right up.”
“That’s my name, don’t wear it out.”
“Can we talk?”
“Sure. Drop by my office later.”

Later, Gordon takes the cable car up to God’s office, which is at the snowy peak of an immense but gracefully curved mountain. God’s secretary (an in-her-prime Grace Kelly) presses the button on her intercom. “Gordon is here to see you.”
“I know. Send him in.”
God is sitting on a blue exercise ball at a big Ikea desk. Behind him there’s a poster of a kitten holding onto a rope. It says, “Hang in there.” On the desk is an iMac, a name plate that says “God”, and a Magic 8 Ball.
“Got a minute?” Gordon asks.
“All the time in the world. Take a load off.” He waves Gordon towards a chair. “So, how you liking it so far?”
“I’m not sure about this whole bliss thing,” Gordon begins. “I mean, struggle was one of the things that gave my life meaning. I enjoyed it.”
“Uh-huh,” says God, who is finishing up deleting spam from his e-mail. “There’s a book you should read. All about struggle. Guy named Hitler wrote it.”
“That’s not what I mean. I mean that it was the expectation of serious effort now in return for future satiety that was motivating in life. Here, everything’s handed to me on a silver platter. Literally. Lunch was on a silver platter.”
“Look, it’s your Heaven. You want some struggle, you can have struggle. Have an argument with Socrates. Talk politics with Machiavelli. Play chess with Morphy. Box a few rounds with Rocky Marciano. Try to figure out season six of Lost. Whatever. You could even go back, if you want. The Buddhists do. Oh, how they love to go back.”
“Okay. Fair enough. But there’s something else I’ve been meaning to ask. I assume you know already-“
“Of course.”
“Exactly. That’s the problem. Omnipotence.”
“Oh, Me. Here we go,” says God.
“It’s self-contradicting, isn’t it?”
“Not to me.”
“I mean, if you’re all-powerful and all-knowing, you must be the cause of evil. At the very least, you either can’t prevent it or won’t. If you can’t prevent it, you’re not omnipotent. If you won’t, you’re malicious. No offense.”
“None taken. Ever heard of free will?”
“Of course, but can we even have free will if your omnipotence includes omniscience, which it must? And, moreover, tidal waves aren’t a matter of free will. Plague isn’t free will. And what about the innocent victims of the acts of free will committed by others? Jews in the Holocaust, that sort of thing.”
God bounces a bit on the exercise ball and says, “I see things long term. Trust me, there’s a good reason for those things. Your puny monkey brain couldn’t understand it. No offense.”
“I have a PhD, you know,” Gordon says, rather indignantly.
“Well, I don’t have a PhD, I admit. But I created created space and time. I invented the physical constants of the universe. I directed biological evolution to ensure the developmental of higher-order intelligence. I solved the Rubic’s Cube in, like, two minutes flat. Two minutes. The first time I laid eyes on it. It took you six years to write your dissertation and half your committee didn’t even read it.”
“They didn’t?”
“Of course they didn’t, pea brain. Didn’t you notice the one guy’s proofreading comments stopped at about page fifty?”
“Oh, wow.”
Gordon reflects for a moment and then says, “So...why am I here? In Heaven? A non-believer like me? All kinds of people said I’d end up in Hell.”
“Meh,” God shrugs. “You seem like a good guy.”
“Okay. But there was this philosopher, Pascal...”
“Speak of the Devil," God interjects. "I’m hitting the links with him tomorrow afternoon. You should come.”
“...and he said it was the best bet to believe in God. But he didn’t say which God. And he didn’t distinguish between the idea that you should believe and actually believing. I mean, it’s not like I could believe in something for which there wasn’t sufficient evidence, even if belief is the best bet.”
“Me knows. Look, you don’t need to explain yourself. We get all sorts up here, and we do our best to make everyone feel at home. But not everyone expected it to be like this. Some wanted virgins, for example. Virgins! What’s up with that?”
“You should talk.”
“Don’t be a wise guy.” He really does sound like Humphrey Bogart. “Anyway, I’m a softy, basically. I’ve got a generally salvic disposition. I let in all sorts. Pagans, Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Christian Scientists, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Jainists, Scientologists, Wiccans, Secularists, Agnostics, Atheists, Theological Noncognitivists. Nearly everybody gets in. You’ve got to be a real A-Hole not to get in. Some people bug me. Every day I meet Biblical literalists, and I say to them, ‘Really? Seriously? You thought there was a big boat with two of every animal on it? How the hell do you think the koala bears made it from Australia? Did they swim?’ But then I get all soft and let them in anyway.”
“But they believed. I didn’t.”
“So what? It’s not like I gave you guys much proof, and it tends to be the smart ones who picked up on that. I like smart people being around. Smart by your tiny little monkey brain standards, that is. You used your God given intelligence for a purpose other than devotion. Bonus marks in my book. Not that book, though. I mean ‘book’ metaphorically.”
Gordon is about to speak when the phone rings.
“I gotta take this,” God says. “They want to know if I’m interested in saving money on long distance. I am. Really, you have no idea. Could we pick this up later? And don’t forget golf tomorrow. We tee off at 11. Einstein will be there, too, but he’s always running behind.”

That evening, Gordon is back in line in the cafeteria. Ahead of him is the Reverend Pat Robertson. Gordon knows perfectly well who he is, and so decides not to strike up a conversation. But Robertson looks over his shoulder at Gordon and examines him rather dubiously. “So...what are you here for?” he asks.
“Skepticism,” Gordon replies. “And you?”