Thursday, June 1, 2017

WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE 3/5

The Problem With Faith


Let’s say you’ve settled on a conclusion about what’s true, and you feel pretty solid about it. You’ve done some research--done some deep thinking and spiritual housekeeping--and you’re committing to believing X or Y. Now, I ask you, what would you call the stuff behind your decision? What led you to make the choice that you did? I’d venture to guess you’d use a word like “reason,” “rationale,” or “logic”—something that makes your decision sound like it was simply appropriate, even obvious, given the evidence. But I’m here to argue that no matter what decisions you’ve come to make about reality, the more appropriate word behind your actions is “faith.” 

“Woah, there buck-o. You may not have heard me, but I'm a decidedly card-carrying scientific naturalist. Don’t go lumping me in with all those hand-raising, kowtowing religious folk.” 

Oh, don’t worry, I heard you loud and clear hypothetical-objector-guy, and my argument remains the same. No matter how science-based your stance may be, it is still one that is rooted in faith. In fact, if you stop and take a thoughtful look at your own actions, and what you base them off of, you’ll recognize you’re acting as a man or woman of faith way more often than you care to admit. 

I’d say almost all but the most paranoid take it on faith that the decided “laws” of our universe such as gravity or nuclear bonds will persist to the next day. We don’t go around wondering if the atoms in the chair we’re sitting on will continue to hold their structure, or if in the next moment the chair will suddenly become a cow, or be ripped from existence entirely. It would be ridiculous and extremely counterproductive to continually question every aspect of our reality all at once. So, we subconsciously agree to simply trust that there are constants in this universe that give order to things. However, our culture has a peculiar way of drawing a line between what is acceptable to put faith in, and what is not. 

It Comes Down to Testimony


But first, lets look at the word “faith” for a second. I feel like we, as a society, have given faith a very narrow connotation. We reserve faith for the traditional religions. We say that faith has more to do with feelings than facts, while words like “reason" and “logic” are more fit for the field of science. But what if, for the sake of this argument, I substituted “faith” with the word “trust?” Trust isn’t that scary of a word, now is it? It’s a word that can play nicely in the context of both religious and scientific communities. One can trust a religious text, just as one can also trust scientific data. And when you boil it down, that’s essentially what faith is: trusting in a testimony that’s being told. 

“Cool, so faith and trust are essentially the same thing. Great. Well, it’s pretty easy to trust in something that’s a proven fact,” I hear someone now saying. 

And to that I say, where are you getting your "facts?" Believe me when I say I am not one of those, “we faked the moon landing; Elvis is still alive,” type of conspiracy guys, but I really do think we need to seriously consider how we come to conclude something is a “fact.” I can almost guarantee none of my readers have much experience with subatomic particles or have witnessed another galaxy with their own eyes, but these are things we accept as common knowledge nowadays. But why?

Testimony. We trust the testimony of the scientists that study such things. We trust that they have put in the effort to make an informed conclusion on something. Thus, we give them credibility in our minds and accept their words as factual. For the most part, this goes on without much of our noticing. This is due to the fact that many claims largely already appeal to a personal schema that we’ve been developing in the context of our culture and place in history. At this particular time, in this particular culture, the concept of atoms or the existence of other galaxies all seems plausible in most people’s accepted view of the world. So, when new claims surrounding such subjects are made, we shrug our shoulders and say, “Huh, makes sense to me!” 

Even when a scientist makes a claim that goes against our current thoughts or feeling, we often still allow them credibility, even if (sometimes especially if) we can’t comprehend their claim. Why do we do this? It’s because we recognize our own ignorance, and trust in the expertise and the work put in by the one making the claim. Even if it means changing one’s own behavior, a person will often heed a new study claiming that fish is the new smoking, or that egg salad sandwiches cause cataracts. 

But what about when that same person comes across a religious or moral claim that confronts them? The script is often flipped. Now, it doesn’t matter how much work or dedication went into the assertion. If it means changing their behavior in the slightest, that person suddenly become an expert on the matter and pins the ignorance on the one making the claim. Yet, unlike the dime-a-dozen scientific studies that claim and counterclaim on a seemingly daily basis, oftentimes statements of religious nature cannot be definitively dismissed. 

Bridging the Gap


Now, why is that? Why, no matter how narrow-minded a religious claim may sound, can we not definitively disprove it’s assertion? It’s because there remains this veil, this distance, between ourselves and full knowledge of reality—something that no amount of research and experimentation can traverse. Regardless of what conclusions you’ve made about reality, a measure of faith is still required to bridge the gap. Still not convinced? Let me explain what I mean through an illustration.

Let’s say that in this illustration you have your typical illustration man (we’ll call him Tim for short). And let’s say Tim is going on his preverbal morning stroll when he suddenly notices this nondescript red object high up in the branches of a nearby tree. Now, Tim isn’t a botanical expert, but drawing from his local context and previous experiences with red objects in trees, he makes an assumption that it must be an apple hanging up there. Given the evidence presented, it seems like a pretty reasonable assumption, right? 

Now, lets say a second person comes along and he just so happens to be a botanical expert. He applauds Tim for the valiant effort, but informs him that this particular tree is actually a red pear tree, and the object is, in fact, not an apple but a pear. Convinced by this fellow’s background, Tim decides to believe his new friend’s claim and begins to call the object a pear as well. 

Soon, a third person comes along. He quickly assesses the situation and proclaims, “Nope, you’re both wrong! That thing up there is definitely a tomato.” Tim is skeptical. He’s never seen tomatoes grow on trees before. Then again, there may be some special variety that does and he’s simply never come across it before. He confers with his new botanist pal and eventually decides to reject the tomato hypothesis. 

Finally, a fourth guy stops by the base of the tree. “Would you look at that!” he proclaims as he looks upward. Before he even has a chance to listen to the tomato, pear, and apple theories, he continues, “my friend told me his red yo-yo got caught up in the pear tree and I just had to come see it for myself!” 

Now, lets break down where faith comes into play in Tim’s experience with this mysterious red object:

When he first comes to notice the object, Tim develops a statement about the object based on what he sees, and any relevant previous experiences he’s had. He probably employed a very logical process. Something like: This object is in a tree; apples grow on trees. This object is red; many varieties of apples are red. However, due to the distance between himself and the red object, Tim still has to rely on a certain level of faith to conclude that it is an apple. In other words, the reasoning Tim used only got him far enough to make a statement of faith, not a statement of fact. And in this case, the testimony Tim’s putting his faith in is his own. He trusts his own experience and subject-knowledge is viable enough to make a trustworthy statement. 

Then along comes the botanist. After learning about his new friend’s expertise and hearing his explanation, Tim decides to replace his apple hypothesis with the new red pear theory. He trusts his friend’s testimony over his own because he admits his own knowledge is limited and he sees value in the words of someone with greater experience. And, just as importantly, Tim trusts that this new acquaintance is being honest with him and not willfully deceiving him. However, despite this new found expertise, the distance between the two of them and the red object still allows for the unknown. An amount of faith is still required to conclude the object is a pear. But now, Tim’s faith is no longer so much in his own testimony, but that of his new friend. 

Next, comes Tomato Guy and his claim. This time, Tim is unconvinced. In this case, Tim's reasoning first references his own personal experience, but then differs to the credibility of his new friend. Tim’s rationale looks something like: This man’s claim doesn’t describe anything I’ve experienced before; his conclusion isn’t trustworthy. This man doesn’t have the credibility of my new botanist friend; this man’s explanation isn’t as viable as my new friend’s. In this decision, Tim’s rationale caused him reject the tomato theory, but it is still his faith that keeps him adhering to the notion that the object in question is a pear. Tim is trusting that both he and his botanist friend are not ignorant of some rare species of tomato that Tomato Guy is correctly identifying in the branches above.

At this point, Tim is probably feeling pretty confident in his decision about the red object. All the parameters seem to line up in his mind. He has the backing of an expert, and he’s even successfully defended his theory against a naysayer. But then, this fourth gentleman comes along with an outlandish claim. 

"I mean, why would a yo-yo be in a tree?” I sure Tim is thinking. "That just sounds so farfetched." Yet, Tim cannot say with any certainty that the notion is impossible. Unable to climb the tree, Tim cannot prove that this man’s friend didn’t at one point send his yo-yo flying up into the canopy for them to now come across and ponder its existence. Tim now has a decision to make. Does he remain adhered to his botanist friend’s hypothesis or does he now accept this story of a red yo-yo? 

Everything was so neat and tidy with the pear theory. The botanist had explanations that made sense to Tim, it was a safe guess that no one would ridicule him for. And if he turned out to be wrong, he could simply blame the bad information on the botanist. But, now this new man comes along and offers not facts and figures, but a testimony. Yet, there’s this confidence about him that Tim cannot overlook. This man seems to know and trust the owner of this yo-yo, he even calls him his friend. But Tim doesn’t know this man’s friend. How can he trust that he’s telling the truth? Who plays with yo-yos anymore, anyway?

This is the great risk of faith. Yet, what many don’t recognize is that there’s risk on all sides. The botanist could have all of his facts right. He could have correctly identified the bark of the tree, the climate and soil type and region could have all lined up to say that this is in fact a red pear tree. In fact, it could actually be a red pear tree. But if the object in question is a yo-yo that happens to be stuck in a red pear tree, he would still be wrong. 

An Element of Hope


Hopefully, you’re still with me after all the fruit and dollar-store toy references. I admit that was a rather exhausting illustration, but I feel it's an accurate depiction of the world of beliefs we live in. When it comes down to it, faith is required of all of us. It’s unavoidable. At some point, we are trusting in somebody's testimony.

Now, I know I said that faith is essentially trusting in a testimony. But, if we take a closer look, this thing that we find within ourselves goes much deeper than mere trust. There’s an element of hope involved. We don’t just think something to be true, we hope something to be true. That is the type of faith I see in most people; the faith that something will come of all this; that there is meaning hiding somewhere, just waiting to be found. Something as simple as the inkling that our thoughts are being listened to--that the cries of our heart are somehow being heard--describes the faith I mean.

Whether we label it “faith” or not, I’m here to argue that this hope--this longing--exists in some form or another within all of us. It just so happens that those for which the necessity of hope is most prevalent, are often those whose circumstances require it most. The choice of non-faith is the religion of the privileged—those so insulated by wealth, comfort, and status that they see no need to hope for better. But for even the most well off, a day of need will come. Tragedy strikes and crisis comes to rich and poor alike. And it’s often through such trails that one’s faith makes itself known. But it’s not just one’s own faith that is revealed, but also the object in which faith is placed. Which begs the question: Can the object of your faith uphold the burden you are placing on it? 

A.W. Tozer in his book, Pursuit of God, describes faith as “the gaze of the soul upon a saving God.” What in your life is your “saving god?” Is it comfort? Is it success? Is it the love and approval of another human being? Will not these things ultimately be crushed under the weight of expectation you’re placing on them? Or are you the only thing you choose to place faith in? That way, the only thing you have to answer to is yourself. But, what if the day comes where your self is the very thing that is crumbling? 

Required Humility


"So, what? You want me to believe in this all-powerful God who will just one day come and make everything better? I'm supposed to just sit back and believe in Him and not question anything? That’s easy for you to say, everything already conveniently lines up with your own preferences. I didn’t grow up in the church, how do you expect me to trust in something like that?”--I expect some of you are saying at this point.

Yes, I did attend church from a young age, but as I said before, I say that I really only became a Christian my sophomore year of high school. And that’s because it was the time I actually did begin questioning things. I wrestled with my faith to the point of tears more nights than I can remember. Those days were undoubtedly the most difficult time of my life. Yet, I wouldn’t trade them for the world. Because through them I came to truly know what I believe in, and why I believe it. 

And no, my statement of faith is not simply my own personal feelings. In fact, there are some Biblical concepts that directly go against my personal feelings, or at least what I’d prefer. There are things in the Bible that I simply cannot wrap my head around--things that I cannot justify in my own mind. But, I readily recognize that I am not the one who justifies--or even the one who comprehends--the workings of this world. 

Think about it. If the God I worshipped could be completely comprehended by my own simple, finite mind, what kind of God would he be? Yet we see people act on this notion all the time. They decided to withhold faith in God because they don’t understand a particular aspect of Him. They would rather continue on in their own comfortable, little world where the only viable governing principles are the ones that happen to make sense to them at the time. They invent this quasi-personal force they call “the universe,” and speak to it like a TV that’s acting up—hoping somehow it will listen. If things somehow end up favorably, they thank it. But they are careful to never give it enough personhood to where it might ever ask something of them in return. 

Yet, unless you are comfortable with labeling yourself the end-all-be-all of all existence, something will be asked of you regardless of what you believe. And that something is to admit that in and of yourself, you cannot--and will not--bridge the gap between your personal understanding of things and complete reality. Faith must be placed in something, or someone, in order to fill this gap. And whatever you decide to have fill this gap, now becomes the authority to which you submit your life. It’s this submission part that our North American culture has a tough time with. However, we are already doing it whether we recognize it or not. 

For those who have decided to profess faith in God, I ask you: Does your God ever ask anything of you that you do not what to do? Does He ever disagree with you? I’d venture to say, in this culture especially, a significant portion of those calling themselves Christians are actually more closely following a deified version of their own self-centeredness, rather than the teachings and person of Jesus Christ. If trust is the root of faith, then one could say that humility is the soil. To have faith in something greater than oneself requires that the self assume the role of the lesser. And if we, as Christians, confess that we have all sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God--and that such a God is infinitely righter and more knowledgable than ourselves--then we should expect ourselves to have gotten some things wrong along the way, and subsequently need to be guided and corrected in some, if not many, areas of thinking. 

Assumed Risk


I can here a certain someone now saying, "That’s all just great, but you Christians are all in the same faith-boat as the rest of us. There’s a chance you are deceived by your own speculation, as well. Why do you insist on shoving your beliefs down everyone’s throat like you know something the rest of us don’t?”

First of all, I’ll admit that we Christians are taking a risk in our belief. Paul, in a letter to the church in Corinth, says, "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:19) We are staking our lives on the fact that Jesus is who he says he was. However, if you think about it, all others are staking their lives, and their eternities, on the very same premise. They’re just hoping Jesus was wrong. The one option Jesus did not leave for us, is to ignore him.

If Christianity proves to be true, convincing someone of the Truth of Jesus’ message means the difference between eternal life and eternal death. Given this, you can understand why we can be pushy sometimes. I’ll address this more in my essay on “Love” but if evangelism somehow becomes more about winning an argument than saving a life, then I believe we have gotten away from the very Gospel message we aim to convey. 

For the scientific naturalist, however, any motivation to proselytize would only come from a personal distaste of other religions or the self-satisfaction of seeing more people join their own side. In fact, in the end there would be no way of knowing if they were actually right in their thinking, because when the time came for the big reveal, they would already be dirt just like everyone else. But, they would definitely know if they were wrong.

So, can we all agree to get comfortable with faith? Again, we employ it every day. We have faith the sun will rise tomorrow instead of exploding and whipping out our entire solar system, we have faith that the banana we ate this morning is actually good for us and not some carcinogenic nightmare-fruit that the scientists of Big Pharma have been marketing as a “superfood” for decades in order to keep the public dependent on their medicines. Faith is innate in all of us. Some are probably just not used to calling it “faith.” 

It seems to be that the grander questions draw us out into areas of faith many of us aren’t comfortable with. When the stakes get higher, many try to force them lower by refusing to trust in anything outside of what they perceive they have control over. However, the stakes of reality aren’t set by the individual, they are set by the highest claim in existence--and that claim was made by God Himself. He set the bar at eternity--and eternity must be addressed before an individual can look to any other claim. 

Again, I return to the question: What is the object of your faith? Or should I say, what is the object of your hope? Can he/she/it withstand the weight you place on them? And what does that faith offer you? What does it say about eternity? 

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” — Matthew 11:28-30

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE? 2/5


The Problem With Truth


The second point of evidence I want to address in this series is our approach to the concept of truth. Now, when I say truth, I mean Truth with a capital “T”—as in the stuff both science and religion aim to describe; the ultimate fabric of reality; "that which has existence apart from any idea any mind may have of it, and which would exist if there were no mind anywhere to entertain a thought of it.” (The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer)

Every day, we are inundated with statements marketed as “truth.” Take your Facebook feed for example. Every few scrolls, there’s some generic absolute emblazoned in a sleek, san-serif typeface over an heavily filtered image of some inspiring vista. There might be a well-dressed 20-something strategically placed in said vista; looking thoughtful, possibly in a yoga pose. Either way, their back is turned to us, or they're obscured by silhouette as they somehow both listlessly and contemplatively survey mountain tops, or a wheat field, or an avant-garde alleyway. And below it, in the comment section, you read “TRUTH” coming from scores of followers. 

Then there’s the much more subtle truth statements that permeate our lives lived outside the caricatured world of social media. They come to us in the form of television shows and water cooler talk, song lyrics and celebrity interviewsall affecting our actions and discourses often without our noticing. We find ourselves speaking of concepts like karma, poetic justice, and the golden rule with the assumption that they are correct indicators of reality—our actions predicated on general assumptions that we both make and project on others without giving any thought to their base. Whether consciously or not, we all stand on some sort of ground when it comes to The Truth.  And like justice, I’ve noticed three general stances.

I can hear you groaning already, “Oh great, here come the three groups again!” And I admit, it wasn’t my intention to structure this essay like the last one, but it seems like that’s the route we’re taking. However, this time I feel like we should give each group a name. Group 1, Group 2, and Group 3 are bland and confusing, especially when you have to keep referencing the top of the essay to remind yourself what description goes with which group number (looking at you Justice Essay). 

We’ll call the first group the Intuition Truth-ers. Their derivation of Truth is based solely on their current perspective or feelings. When confronted with a notion, they quickly assess whether or not they agree with its implications and then judge its validity based on that assessment. 

Next, are the Broad Truth-ers, they are the ones who say that The Truth is relevant or even unknowable, so they take the pluralist approach and put all attempts at Truth into the same category. They say, "who are we to discredit someone else’s truth or impose our own on others? What’s true for some people may not be true for others.” 

Finally, there are the Concise Truth-ers, those who say that The Truth is totally knowable, and that there are concrete, consistent, and immovable facts about our reality that we can ascertain. However, what those facts are, as well as the methods by which to ascertain them, may differ from group member to group member. 

Now that we all have team names, I’m sure you’ll find yourself at least partially leaning toward one of these three groups. So, let’s begin to dive into each’s approach.


Intuition Truth-ers


First of all, I doubt many readers will readily admit to being card carrying member of the Intuition Truth Club, but almost all of us find ourselves attending one of their quarterly potlucks from time to time. However, if through careful reflection you discover that your perspective on Truth noticeably lacks any kind of reference to anything beyond your own thoughts and experiences, then you have not only bought the t-shirt and bumper sticker, you may actually be leading the next month’s bake sale. 

Intuition Truth-ers, I’ll give you the same words as I did the feeling-based justice seekers from the previous essay: Unless you are the supreme arbiter of truth, how you happen to feel about something doesn’t have any bearing on whether or not it is true. Again, all of us are guilty of making a snap judgement on something simply because it disrupts our current perspective on things (e.g. anytime you scroll through a social media feed), but this disruption must occur and be thoroughly investigated if we are to ever grow in our pursuit of Truth. 

Think about it. Any one of us will readily admit that we don’t know everything, correct? Then why, when met with some idea that’s surprising or offensive to us, is our first reaction to automatically discount it as foolish and ridiculous? Obviously, that’s not to say that every offensive idea is true, but it’s only after intentional consideration that we have any solid grounds by which to personally judge the validity of a notion. Yet remember, unless you are an ardent Solipsist, don’t think your personal judgements on things have any effect on their actuality. 

Which brings up a peculiar trend becoming more an more popular these days: the choosing of a set of beliefs based on what “works” for a particular individual. They say the tenants of Buddhism “work” for them because they provide a nice spiritual outlook on life without all the close-mindedness of some of the other religions. Or they say it’s fine that Christianity “works” for their friend at school, but they just don’t see that type of lifestyle "working" for them. Or even more so, they decide to make their own custom designer-religion by borrowing all the pleasant sounding aspects of various beliefs and conveniently ignoring all the constraining parts. Please, tell me you see the absurdity in all this? Since when does whether or not something “works” for a person have any bearing on it’s validity? You don’t see people walking around saying, “you know, gravity’s fine for some people, but it just doesn’t work for me” and then they go floating away all pretentiously. 


Broad Truth-ers


Again, I will borrow from the previous essay on Justice. To make the claim that there is no such thing as ultimate truth—or at least it is unknowable—is, in itself, an attempt at stating an ultimate truth—a truth you are claiming to, in fact, know. And, again, to say that no one should impose their understanding of truth on another is actually imposing an understanding of truth on another. 

In describing their view on Truth, Broad Truth-ers may reference the popular parable of The Blind Men and the Elephant. In this parable, a group of blind men each go about feeling around different sections of an elephant. They then attempt to describe the creature before them:

One man, feeling the leg of the animal, says "It’s thick and sturdy, like a tree."

Another man, feeling the tail says, "No! It’s thin like a rope."

While still another, touching the side, argues "It’s big and broad like a wall."

This is supposed to represent how the differing beliefs of the world are only seeing part of a larger Truth. However, there’s a flaw to this argument that I will let a much more learned man explain:

“...I remind the hearers that the only way this parable makes any sense, however, is if the person telling the story has seen the whole elephant. Therefore, the minute one says, 'All religions only see part of the truth,' you are claiming the very knowledge you say no one else has. And they are demonstrating the same spiritual arrogance they so often accuse Christians of.  In other words, to say all is relative, is itself a truth statement but dangerous because it uses smoke and mirrors to make itself sound more tolerant than the rest. Most folks who hold this view think they are more enlightened than those who hold to absolutes when, in fact, they are really just as strong in their belief system as everyone else.  I do not think most of these folks are purposefully using trickery or bad motives. This is because they seem to have even convinced themselves of the ‘truth' of their position, even though they claim ‘truth' does not exist or at least can't be known.  Ironic isn't it? The position is intellectually inconsistent." (Tim Keller in Pluralism as a Religious Philosophy by Tim Keller and Charles Garland)


Concise Truth-ers


Now, on to those that believe there are real, concrete truths behind all that is. I admit, this is a very large group, and most of you probably consider yourself part of it. But within this group there are two distinct sub-groups. 

In one group are those who put great value in the stuff of religion. They argue that faith and testimony are paramount in ascertaining the truths of our existence. 


In the other group, are those that will only respond to the empirical. They say the only truth worth pursuing is that which can be scientifically proven. 



Quick Caveat


By now, you may have a guess as where I’m going with this argument, which is why I am addressing this now. 

In this essay, it is not my intent to debunk any current claims made by the scientific community, nor is it my intent to provide an airtight argument for the Christian creed. Rather, I am more so writing to shed some light on the unfair standard by which we have come to judge truth, by exposing the overvalue placed on the empirical based discipline of science and the unwarranted dismissal of the more faith-based assertions of religion.


Science vs Religion


To start, I want to address this prolonged and arduous battle between science and religion. Personally, I think it’s odd, and at many times counterproductive, pitting the two fields against one another when, at their root, they are asking two entirely different questions. You see, at its most basic, the field of science is centered around the question of "how?” while religion is centered on the question of “why?” Let me provide an example to explain what I mean by this. 

Say you are standing on a sidewalk and witness a car drive past you. How would you go about explaining the reason for this car’s driving? 

Science would say it’s driving because the accelerator has been pressed down, causing combustion in the engine, moving the pistons, which turn the crankshaft, which turns the drive shaft and eventually the tires, and due to the friction between the rubber and the ground, the vehicle is either pulled or pushed along. 

Religion would say the car is driving because the driver has some place to go. 

I’m sure you’ll agree that both answers can be considered correct. The former is simply more concerned with how the process of driving works, while the latter is concerned with why the driving is happening in the first place. You could say that science is focusing on the car, while religion is focusing on the driver. 

You can see how this example addresses the classic science and religion argument over the origin of Earth. Now, you can call me ignorant, you can call me stubborn and a science-hater, but I admit that I believe that the earth was created by God in the way Genesis depicts it, because I like the beauty of the creation story and it's something I’ve decided to put faith in. However, there are also Christians who believe that it’s possible the Earth is billions of years old and that the story of creation written in Genesis is intended to be a poem depicting the events of creation, rather than a literal timeline. I would argue against them, but would the foundations of my faith be shaken if their argument proved to be true? Not at all! Because the Bible wasn’t intended to be an instruction book on how to build a universe. Rather, it’s a centuries-long collective narrative that tells of a God who created a universe out of love, and why He would go to any lengths to win back the hearts of His creation after it rebelled against Him. 


[Update 05/26]

Again, I believe the Bible to be the infallible Word of God and supremely true. And, I also believe there are plenty of important "how" questions that The Scriptures directly answer (e.g. How our broken relationship with our Creator can be restored [Romans 10:9]). And these are definitely questions we should be asking. (Please, I beg of you, ask these types of questions!) 

But, all too often I see us getting hung up on much smaller "how" questions, about subjects so relatively inconsequential, and we are getting frustrated because the Text is answering with a “why.” And that “why" is: “I love you, just trust Me.” We don’t have the perspective to see what’s at work on a grander scale. Otherwise, we would be asking very different questions. 

[End Update]

And what about the questions we are asking science? Of course there are some “why” questions we can ask science like, "Why is the sky blue?" or “Why does the earth rotate around the sun?” and it could very well answer them with nice, logical conclusions. However, the “why" questions science is capable of answering still only deal with function as opposed to intent. You could very well reword the previous questions as, “How come we perceive the sky as blue?” and “How does gravity work?” 


Intent and Meaning


Which brings us to a shortcoming of science that a lot of people would rather not admit; and it’s a jumping-off point for many who are too uncomfortable with the requirements of faith: In order to address any sense of intent behind existence, one must leave the territory of science and submit to the confines of religion. Why is this such a hard leap for many of us? It’s because empirical evidence is comfortable; things are testable, repeatable. The control remains firmly in our hands. However, testimonial evidence—the stuff behind intent—requires faith in the message, and places control in the hands of the teller.

Now, I’m not saying empirical evidence isn’t valuable, I’m saying it’s not complete in describing the world we live in. We still have this glaring hole in our experiences that no matter how hard we try, we cannot fill by means of scientific experimentation. This hole is “meaning.” Like the man driving the car because he has some place to go, his reason for driving can only truly be ascertained by direct testimony from the driver, otherwise any other assertion of meaning would be mere speculation. 

“Meaning, eh?” you might say. "Meaning is just a construct of our survival instinct. We invent significance behind our existence to promote stronger familial bonds, or to comfort ourselves against the starkness of this world. Yes, the car is driving but have you ever thought that there is no driver? That there is no intent?” 

This is the stance I see many of the more science-minded taking when it comes to the religious affairs of meaning. However, I don’t see many adherers practicing what they preach. In fact, I think believing that meaning is a myth requires just as much, if not more, faith than believing there is a distinct purpose behind our universe and subsequently our actions. 

I’ll get into this more in the next essay, but to those who believe meaning is just a human construct, can you really tell me you honestly believe things like love, and kindness, and friendship are all based on illusions? The stuff behind the greatest works of art, music, and literature throughout the ages—do you really profess that all of it is simply a product of our own deception? And do your actions reflect your belief? 

When a novel causes you to burst with excitement at the long anticipated reunion of lost lovers or when a film makes you weep with joy as the pain riddled protagonist finally finds the hope he’d so desperately longed for, do you think to yourself, “Wow, this story has really triggered an instinctual empathetic response in me. What a neat artifact from my ancestors! I can see how this would really promote the survival of the species.” No! When the bride finds her true love, or the missing child finally returns home, something inside you wells up and proclaims, “This is right! There is something true about this!"

How cruel would it be to spend our entire existences searching for meaning, longing for true relationship, only to have the universe turn out to be this cold, aimless thing where any attempt at significance is left incomplete, unresolved; our hearts left chasing only shadows where we thought we saw something real. 

Yet, you are free to buy into this dismal perspective, and the bitter anguish that comes with it. But don’t think that somehow your suffering will produce any sort of merit. If you’ve decided to give up on meaning, then you must also give up on any idea of your stance being more “noble” than others.

However, if you allow yourself the hope that meaning exists, you must submit to the realm of religion. Even if you don’t attest to a “god” of sorts, and rather suspect some sort of “natural law” is behind our sense of meaning, you must still enter a world of faith. Again, the intentionality required to inject any actual meaning into our existence can only be ascertained through testimony provided by the intentional force itself.

So, what do I want you all to take from this? Besides obviously wanting you all to become Jesus-loving Christians, I want you to recognize the indispensability of religion when I comes to explaining our reality, and that science isn’t the end-all-be-all that people make it out to be. Again, science it great at what it does. I don’t want to belittle the benefit of all the countless discoveries made through its processes. I just want to remind people that if we wish to pursue any sense of purpose in our lives, or purpose in the world around us, we must enter the realm of religion. 


Strangeness


At this point, I’m guessing a few of you are saying, “Okay, so you want me to be a Christian. Great. But God coming as a man? People rising from the dead? Angels? Demons? Heaven and Hell? It all sounds so farfetched. How do you people actually believe this stuff?” 

First of all, strangeness has no bearing on the validity of something. On the contrary, it is my experience that strangeness is often the calling card of new information. I’ll admit it is hard to do, but try imagining being told some of the established norms of our universe for the first time. Imagine hearing about the concept of gravity or where babies come from all over again. I mean, try explaining to someone what the heck a Portuguese Man of War is. Jellyfish are weird enough creatures as it is, but then to learn that this thing isn’t even a jellyfish—that it isn’t even an singular animal—but a "colony of specialized, genetically identical individuals called zooids with various forms and functions, all working together as one.” (National Ocean Service NOAA) There are many aspects of reality that we undoubtedly first thought bizarre that we have now come to know as commonplace. 

Actually, I believe the “strangeness” of the Christian message helps legitimize it’s credibility. In the Bible, specifically the books that comprise the Gospel of Jesus Christ—the crux of Christian belief—there are certain oddities and nuances that are included in the testimonies that, I think, point to its authenticity. The text of John 20 for example, recounts the initial discovery of Christ’s resurrection:

"1 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, 'They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.' So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. 4 Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.” (John 20:1-4)

There are two things that jump out as strange in this passage. The first is the inclusion of John (the other disciple) outrunning Peter on their way to the tomb. The fact that John (commonly believed to be the author of this particular Gospel) decided to include that he outran his friend—a detail so anecdotal and seemingly superfluous—in the retelling of the scene, gives his testimony that certain intimacy and familiarity that gives a story credibility. The other oddity is having a woman as the first witness of the empty tomb, and the first person visited by the resurrected Jesus. In an time and culture where a woman’s testimony was commonly dismissed and not even viable in a court of law, if someone was attempting to fabricate such a story, they would have surely made a man the premiere witness of arguably the most crucial event in the story’s telling. And yet, we have Jesus himself commissioning a woman—a former prostitute at that—to be the honorary messenger of the greatest news in the history of mankind. 

"16 Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.' She turned and said to him in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!' (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, 'Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, "I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God”' 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, 'I have seen the Lord' — and that he had said these things to her. (John 20 16-18)


On What Grounds?


Regardless of what you choose to believe, we all hold on to a truth statement of some sort. It could take the form of a long-held religion, or simply be a personally curated set of beliefs, but we proclaim such a statement most loudly with our actions, rather than our words. The question I challenge you to ask yourself is: What is the foundation of the truths I profess? 

Do you have a storied, diverse body of believers—some much wiser and committed to truth than you—agreeing with you saying, “Yes! I see these things too!” Is your foundation soaked in the blood of those that came before you? —those so committed to this truth that they would see themselves tortured and brutally killed in order that the message live on? Would you, yourself, stand ready to die for the truth that you profess to believe in? Or is your foundation only yourself? Is it a foundation haphazardly formed by a concoction of intuition and personal experiences? Is the truth you believe in something you’ll go to the grave for? Or will you only offer a strongly worded argument, but nothing much further? 

Of course, the truth does not depend on how many people believe it, nor how fervently they defend it. A former pastor of mine used to say, “You can be totally sincere about something and still be be sincerely wrong." However, I feel assured in the Text that I, and countless individuals before me, have personally wrestled with, shed tears over, some their own blood over, and have all eventually come to submit to the Truth that it conveys. I am much more assured in a Text like that than some personal canon amassed from movie quotes and cultural norms—something carefully crafted to never question or challenge you, something you can comfortably project into the unforeseeable future without much maintenance. That is until tragedy or crisis strikes and you’re left with nothing to uphold you, as the chosen foundation of yourself is the very thing that is crumbling. 

Let yourself be challenged in your approach to Truth. Ask questions. Surround yourself with those you see running harder after this thing than you are. Be honest with yourself about what you believe and why you believe it. As we say about our Holy Scriptures: Don’t just read the text, let the text read you. Yes, there’s a lot of mystery to it all, but that’s the beauty of it. I can think of no nobler task, no greater adventure, than the pursuit of The Truth and God himself.

“Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have. So let us leave behind all these boys' philosophies--these over simple answers. The problem is not simple and the answer is not going to be simple either.” --Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE? 1/5


Preface


What do you believe? It’s a question I feel almost everybody has asked themselves at some point in their lives. For some, the question may have only needed to come up once for it to be satisfied with whatever answer was provided them in their early years. For others, it will be a question they wrestle with throughout their lifetime, and one whose answer will shape every significant season of their life. Whatever priority we give it, it's a question that demands an answer—even if that answer is a decidedly emphatic, “I don’t know.”

As for me, I take the obsessive route. It seems like not a day goes by without my mind venturing into the question of my existence, the chief purpose of Man, the character of God, or the actualities of Good and Evil. One of my favorite conversations to have with myself is the argument for or against the existence of God, and the implications therein. (If I had even a fraction of these internal conversations with actual people, I’d be a much more productive member of society.) Through these internal dialogues, I've come across an interesting realization which has become the reason for my writing this series of articles. That realization is this: Though many people claim atheism or agnosticism in creed, their behavior often says otherwise. 

In the following collection of essays, I will attempt to explain how I think that most of us are acting in a way—whether consciously or unconsciously—that submits to the existence and authority of God. Specifically, I see such evidence in the way that we treat the concepts of Justice, Truth, Faith, Happiness and Love. And though, in their very nature, such concepts still glow as bold and bright as ever, the words themselves have, in a sense, become faded and diluted in meaning through over-use and loose application. Thus, many minds have divorced them from their source; which I believe to be God Himself. 

Now before we go any further, I just want to say up front that I am a believer in the God that Christianity proclaims, and that is the perspective from which I am writing these articles. So, whenever I mention God, I am referring to the God of which Christianity professes. I am doing this because I hold the beliefs of Christianity to be true and right in their approach to reality. I am not doing this because of some blind religious or political obligation or guilt. I really do believe the creed of Christianity, and it’s my suspicion you may also. You just may not realize it yet. When opportunities allow, I will attempt to explain my reasoning behind my belief in a rational, carefully thought-out manner. And yes, it is my hope that all who read this may come to know the transforming love and truth found through Jesus Christ alone. It would be very cruel of me to believe something is truly life-changing yet withhold it out of fear of stepping on toes. All I ask of you, the reader, is to be open to what I have to say, removing any prejudices you may have about Christianity, and to be honest with yourself about what your thoughts and actions actually reveal about your beliefs. 

My hope is that these topics are starting points for future conversations. I am open to any further discussions, for this is a learning opportunity for myself as well. I want to get better at having deep, meaningful conversations that actually exist outside of my own head, and I want to learn how to better love my neighbor through the simple acts of speaking and being spoken to. I hope these writings bless you in some way and I look forward to hearing from you! 



The Problem with Justice


The first point of evidence I want to discuss is extremely relevant for our day.  In an age where atrocities committed by groups such as ISIS and Boko Harem plaster our television screens seemingly every morning, there has been an ever-increasing cry for this thing called justice.  However, justice—which I am defining as the righting of something deemed wrong—is the very same claim of the radicals behind these acts that we deplore. Both parties decry the actions of the other and believe themselves to be appealing to some authoritative sense of rightness. Imagining my audience, I assume you, like I, fall into the category of despising the work of terrorists groups such as ISIS and Boko Harem, so I will continue on with this example under that assumption. 

Now, I want you to think about the sense of injustice you feel when you hear about a mass shooting, a bombing or a kidnapping committed by ISIS. Why do you call such an act “wrong” or “evil?”  Your answer will tell you a lot about where you place the authority of right and wrong.  

My guess is that you had some variation one of three answers: 

1.)  It goes against some universal truth from which we get our morality; some truth that says human life is precious and should be protected.  

2.)  It goes against the “morals” of our herd-mentality; a sense of right and wrong derived from an instinct centered on what’s best for the species’ survival.  

3.)  I don’t know. It just feels wrong.

For those of you in the first group, congratulations! You’ve found God. I’ll get to you all in a second, but first I want to address the other two groups in the room.


Group Two


I just want to say that you have a cohesive argument. But for all of our sakes, I hope to God you are wrong. The stance you take is centered around what is best for the herd (read: human race).  Well, what if those ascribing to ISIS's creed become the majority of the herd? Are you prepared to do what’s best for the herd then? 

See, this prescribed model of survival requires that the fittest survive, and that “fitness,” as we observe in nature, is determined by power. Those that adapt the quickest and have the greatest access to resources dictate what the herd mentality is. It’s beat ‘em, join ‘em, or else. Now, I am open to a scenario in which intelligence, compassion, and tolerance one day become the new “fitness,” but how would that be enforceable? There would still need to be some way of suppressing those that value conquest, greed, and fear-mongering, lest the current ideology be overrun. No matter how peace-loving the idea of the day is, a certain level of power is required to maintain it’s reign. 

Group Two’s thinking presents a world constantly stuck in transition between warring ideologies, one where lasting peace would be impossible. And with no absolute truth or authority to appeal to, the “rightness" of the day is only contingent upon it’s adherents' ability to uphold it. Even then, the only reasoning behind any of these shifting ideologies is that the species survives, so identifying any particular one of them as being universally more “right” than another would prove baseless. 

For example, under Group Two’s thinking, one could suggest that killing off the weak and disabled would be the best thing for our species. It would promote stronger genes being passed on and allow our resources to go farther since the population would be smaller. Quite Hitler-esque, isn’t it? Could you imagine the outcry if that was suggested in our current political climate? However, under Group Two’s premise, it is just as legitimate as suggesting we love and care for everyone regardless their condition. Any sense of “rightness" surrounding an idea would only depend on the idea’s efficacy in promoting the species’ survival.  
When faced with injustice, the appropriate action for those in Group Two would be to assess which side is winning and join it.

Group Three


I’m giving you an “incomplete” on this one.  By saying, “It feels wrong,” I’m assuming you are in some way recognizing an innate morality described by either of the first two groups. However, your answer could present an even more troubling implication than those of Group Two. 

I doubt you’d go so far as to state it this way, but I just want to put it out there so you can see the danger hiding in your answer. If, by “it feels,” you mean that your current perception of the world around you somehow dictates the universal positions of right and wrong, and you feel it your duty to judge the world based on this notion, then you are essentially setting yourself up as the supreme arbiter of good and evil. Unless you are the most honest of narcissists, I don’t think this was your intention. 

Yet, when you think about it, our society has created an environment in which the individual is exalted to a god-like status. Our individuality is treated with such sanctity that it’s no wonder we are so quickly offended when our point of view is treated as anything but authoritative. Where Group Two’s thinking allows a power struggle between warring ideas, Group Three’s thinking creates a power struggle on the individual level—a battle of billions of supposed demigods. 
When faced with injustice, the appropriate action for those in Group Three would be to make a personal judgement and impose it on the world.

Group One


Might I prescribe to you, Christianity? Whether you readily recognize it or not, I believe your answer appeals to God's authority. And when I say God, I mean to describe not only an ever-enduring constant from which we get the laws of our universe and the thing behind the authorship of our existence, but a personality that grants immovable value and definite parameters to existence and livelihood. If you find yourself disagreeing with the personality aspect, then I’d have to say you actually belong to Group Two with those who think our attribution of meaning is merely a product of instinct.  

Now, I want to take a moment and address a potential objection that may have come up by this point. I’m sure some of you may be thinking, “This is what irritates me about religion. These people claim some divine authority and use it to impose their will on the world. The conflicts proposed in the Group Two section are mostly centered around religion anyway.” 

First of all, I want to say you are correct. Appealing to a divine authority has supercharged the conflict between may people groups throughout history. Christians aren’t immune to this. In fact, we are particularly bad about doing this. Although, we do believe in God’s universal authority, we often wield it as if it we are the appointed judge. There’s a reason Jesus preached humility and servanthood. If we aren’t ourselves constantly being challenged and offended by the authority of God we ascribe to, then we have no solid ground on which to prescribe it to others. 

This isn’t to say there's not a time for conflict. However, there is an important difference in Christianity’s approach to conflict. Where Group Two sees conflict as a perpetual inevitability, Christianity sees conflict as having a distinct end. And that end relies on the final actualization of the Truth they appeal to. If that truth ends up not existing, then it becomes just another shifting ideology described in Group Two. However, if this authoritative truth is real, then it’s adherents are the only ones who have a correct view of justice and therefore are able to pursue it genuinely. 

Which brings up another concept I feel most of you will cringe at: The Wrath of God. Most of us don’t like the concept of a wrathful God. However, we have no problem asking for justice to come on those who do evil. Do you see the paradox here? How can we expect the ultimate abolishment of evil to come if we prefer a god without the power to defeat it? If evil is to be defeated, there must be a line in the sand that delineates what will persist and what will be destroyed. But the amazing thing is, through Jesus Christ, God gives us the choice of which side we’d like to stand on.

Now, for those of you that still find yourself in Group One, lets talk about this Authority to which you find yourself subscribed to. It may feel funny at first, but in order to align with what we are now seeing as a real sense of justice, you are going to have to submit to this Authority. This is where CAREFUL consideration is paramount. I firmly believe Who that authority is ineffably matters. (Remember, ISIS appeals to something they call god.) This means you better hit the books before you even being the process of discerning right from wrong. And don’t you dare just settle for some piecemeal god that you’ve concocted from a mishmash of "life experiences" and celebrity quotes, lest you end up the poster child for Group Three. Trust me, I tried to get by on this whole intuition-based morality thing for a long time and have seen how baseless it is. Even though the US Census has likely known me to be a Christian since I was in elementary school, I really only say I became a Christian my sophomore year of college. 

If you are looking for an awesome resource to help you begin practically uncovering the evident characteristics of God, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis and The Reason for God by Timothy Keller are books I can’t recommend enough. In fact, these two books have helped inspire a lot of what you will be reading within these essays. 
When faced with injustice, the appropriate action for those in Group One would be to discern truth and fight for it.  

The Moral Relativists


Now, there is one other group I’ve neglected to address, and that’s because I think there are very few true adherents to it. This is the group of the Moral Relativists. I can hear you right now: “Hey! I know lots of moral relativists! I might even be one! We all decide what’s right for ourselves; to each their own, right?” To each their own; this has been the mantra of our culture for some time now: "Who am I to impose my beliefs on someone else?" 

Well, what happens when that someone’s “own” involves stealing your car and wrapping it around a telephone pole? Or what if that someone’s personal morality justifies raping your wife and abducting your child? To each their own, who are you to judge, right? Again, I’m using extreme examples, but I want to prove a point: The same hypocrisy Christians are (often rightly) accused of when they pick and choose which morals to abide by and which to conveniently ignore, I see in self-defined relative moralists. They preach tolerance and that it’s not right for anyone to impose their personal beliefs on another. But that statement is often forgotten when they themselves are the one being harmed by another person’s actions—actions which are totally allowed by the very creed they proclaim. In fact, to say it is not right for anyone to impose their beliefs on others, is itself, an act of imposing a personal belief on others.

“What is heaven for the spider is hell for the fly,” a drifter once told me whilst wielding a large steak knife he was using to eat bowlful of raw onions and lentils. The only people I see truly ascribing to such a chaotic outlook must be either in a constant state of paranoia or so insulated from reality by either privilege or aloofness that they neither notice nor care about such as thing as rightness.
When faced with injustice, the appropriate action of a moral relativist would be to remain silent. 

True Justice


Now, hopefully you are still with me and maybe some of you have even decided a Christian perspective is for you. I hope so, because this is where the meaning of justice really starts to take shape. You see, once you begin to uncover the character of God and the redemptive nature of the work He is doing, that is when justice becomes a tangible, executable thing. Because now, when we say we fight for justice, we are not referencing some vague idea that happens to be popular at the time, and we are certainly not referencing our own sense of authority and rightness. No, when we say we fight for justice, we are saying we align with a God who say he is “making all things new.” (Revelation 21:5) We can make our mission, his mission: to "preach good news to the poor… proclaim freedom for the prisoner and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.” (Luke 4:18 - Jesus quoting Isaiah 61:1)—things most of us traditionally think of when we think of justice. But now our pursuit appeals to something concrete: the authority of an immovable, almighty God. 

However, with this new found legitimacy behind our justice-seeking, there is one very important distinction that needs to be made. It is against Evil that we wage war, not people. True, there are great atrocities that people commit under the influence of evil, but they themselves are merely deceived captives. We must be fighting for them as much as we are fighting for those they are oppressing. This isn’t to say that those who continually align with evil won't be punished, but that is a job we leave to God. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19) 

This is not an attempt to belittle the suffering caused by evil. In fact, leading the charge in the pursuit of justice, we have Jesus—the ultimate sufferer of evil. Anyone who has felt the devastation and grief caused by the darkness of this world, has a God who has felt the very same thing on an infinitely greater scale. However, the charge he gives to us is to love our enemies. Even in the midst of his torturous crucifixion, Jesus pleaded in favor of his assailants: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) For Jesus sees a mission beyond simply abolishing evil actions, his mission is to bring freedom—both to the oppressed and the oppressors.

Now, if this whole justice argument still has you feeling skeptical, I want to ask you one more question that may put things in a stronger context: If you say that life is precious, and should be protected. Why? You must answer this question in order to have any respectable position on which to pursue justice. The only way to avoid an answer is to reject the statement that human life has value, and you and I both know that is not a statement you are willing to make. 

"My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course, I could have given up my idea of justice by saying that it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too–for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist–in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless–I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality–namely my idea of justice–was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.”
-- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity