Is He Holding You?

Thoughts on Critical Examination

In the middle of a rainy night at Union Station in Jacksonville, Mississippi, the Greyhound driver left our bus. Nobody came to take his place. We soon realized that it would be a while before dispatch could rectify the mistake, and as we waited there, I wandered into the empty station and watched the TV in the customer service area.

Larry King was interviewing Bill Maher—a comedian I had previously never heard of—about his upcoming film, which mocks religion. I paid attention to the dialogue that followed.

Maher made the conjecture that “the idea that another human being can tell you what happens when you die” is ridiculous. I can empathize with this. In the moments that followed he admitted that he was not strictly atheist, but agnostic. He suggested that although there might be answers, he didn’t know them, and he believes it’s much more honest to admit that. He doesn’t care much for the big questions, because “you just give yourself a headache thinking about them.”

At one point Larry King, in reference to these answers, asked: “So it could be Jesus?”

“Well yes, it could be Jesus,” conceded Maher, “but it also could be… Furby, or the lint in my navel.”

Larry King paused to note that they were having this interview because of the comedian’s upcoming movie, and that “no matter what you think of religion, you should see this film.”

Our driver still hadn’t arrived. I went back to the bus and opened up a book. A Southern drawl behind me broke the silence.

“Even people tryin’ a sneak on a bus ‘d be gone by now.”

* * *

There are many distinct paradigms on display when people candidly discuss God or religion. Inside the Christian church, I have heard for many years that the post modern era has produced a society uninterested in intellectual arguments. They want to know why this God cares about them, why He is relevant, and why He loves them. They may like Christ, but dislike the Christians, as Gandhi did. If we could show them a generation of changed lives, we may change their lives.

For all those years, I have kept my head down and silently disagreed. I would like to believe that God cares, and is present in the universe that He ostensibly created—I wish to live selflessly, and differently—but I can’t live for God unless I first have reason to believe He exists, and wants me to.

There is a classical assumption in the church that you cannot reason someone into faith. I do not disagree with this. I strongly believe, however, that you cannot bring someone to faith of any substance without reason. But how much can you apply reason to something so inexplicable and elusive?

In the opening lecture of a Professional Education course that I took during the summer term, our professor drew a graph in the shape of an inverse bell curve, with time on the X axis and commitment (to beliefs and ideas) on the Y axis. The curve was a cycle that many people, though not all, progress through. She labeled the first high point “dualism,” in which people believe there are only right or wrong answers. They then sink into “relativism,” in which they begin to question whether these answers can be found at all. In the last phase, they discover that while absolute truth is always uncertain, some answers are better than others, and they grow comfortable with committing themselves to those that they consider best. Although she made a tolerant disclaimer that there is nothing “good or bad” about completing this cycle, I seems to me a plain case of maturity with time.

For persons in the commitment stage, this commitment is based on knowledge. It is possible to base your commitments on reason, but like a powerful engine grinding on fumes, base your reason upon nothing.

For some, truth is so inaccessible that it could be anything—including Furby and the lint in Bill Maher’s navel—but for most, it is not.

* * *

An explanation is only a working explanation if it truly addresses the cause.

I have so often heard the beliefs and behaviour of Christians explained in the basest terms—that faith is a crutch for the weak minded, that the church is after your money, that God is Santa Claus for grown-ups, that we believe in God only to explain natural phenomena that science has now explained. These explanations are popular because they are simple, adequately fitting the scintilla of understanding that their hearers often possess.  [1]

There is no need to debunk these, because their occasional truth is inconsequential—as is the existence of atheists who disbelieve out of fear that God will make them change their lives. Neither reasons why people may believe in God, nor possibilities of how we may have invented the idea, determine whether it is valid.

Similarly, it is fallacy to say that something is wishful thinking because of desire. If a man and a woman are in love, we do not tell him that she and her love are imaginary, simply because he desires that it should be so.

A working explanation is only a correct explanation if it is in harmony with all you know, and all that you haven’t yet learned.

Explanations for events are often accepted as soon as they suffice in light of all that we know, and rarely do we consider that we may know very little.

If a new woman at work is seen getting friendly with the boss, we assume that she is not seeking unadulterated, true love. We allow for the possibility, but we do not press it, as there are no consequences for being wrong. In the “big question,” however, there can ultimately be only one truth, with no stereotypes or likelihoods to compare it to. If the true motives behind the workplace tryst held the meaning of life, we would surely take the pains to discover that these two have been acquainted since childhood, and long ago fell for each other.

Even agnosticism must be justified. The assumption that we cannot know the truth–or that the truth is not important–must be critically chosen as the better position… not defaulted to.

Larry King’s statement that viewers “should” see Maher’s film haunted me as I struggled to sleep to the humming of the Greyhound engine. The premise was unmistakable—viewers of all persuasions we have their thinking reformed by what they see, because it will be new to them. To suggest that we have thought so little about these topics that we “should” see—that we would benefit from seeing—a comedian heckle religious believers with trick questions, is abominable.

* * *

I read a story circulated on the Internet entitled “Is He Holding You?” about a girl whose atheist father committed a murder suicide in front of her. This girl had never learned anything about Christianity. Later, when she attended church for the first time, a Sunday school teacher held up a picture of Jesus.

“Does anyone know who this is?” she asked. The girl responded:

“That’s the man who was holding me the night that my parents died.”

The picture of Jesus was surely a white Anglo-Saxon portrayal that would bear little resemblance to the real man. The girl would never have simply accepted the memory of a strange man in her house, only to casually bring it up upon recognizing his face. The story contains no verifiable details. A Christian who passionately recounted this story would be ridiculed—would it be for these reasons? Or simply because belief in and of itself is to be ridiculed?

On an engineering test, it is not acceptable to leave out steps that lead to the answer, especially if there are only so many answers to choose from. It is not acceptable to be right by accident, and neither is it acceptable to be right for the wrong reasons—ultimately, this leads to being wrong.

How many Christians do examine that story and find it wanting? Religious believers are held to a standard of scrutiny that brings heavy criticism for believing flimsy tales. But I have already spent far more time reproving my fellow Christians than I’ve spent reproving those atheists and agnostics who comfort themselves with tales that are no less flimsy.


[1] It’s true that many learned people tend to say things like this, so I only referred to popularity among the hearers.


4 Responses to “Is He Holding You?”

  1. But here’s a thought for you:

    Jesus praised the faith of one man (in recorded history). It was the Roman centurion who knew that Jesus had authority and could command illness without even being in the presence of the ill.

    All we know about this man’s faith is that he held Jesus in high regard (“I do not deserve to have you come under my roof”), and that Jesus had authority, similar, yet much greater, than his own. We don’t know if this man thought Jesus was the sun of God, or the Messiah. Yet Jesus was astonished at his “such great faith.”

    That little kid didn’t know who – exactly – that guy (Jesus) was, and I’m not saying the story is verifiable fact, but I think it parallels a common truth in the passage, and that is of someone who can have faith, without knowing the whole story.

    In fact, we are always basing our faith on incomplete information. We will never know all of God, we may even have the wrong motivations for coming to him, because goodness knows we don’t come to him in a state of health but of brokenness.

    The thing about faith, whether it’s agnosticism or Christianity, is that it will always be based on our limited experiences and blindness. I could say that in my life God has “revealed” himself to me, or whatever Christian jargon you want to use, but the truth is, if I couldn’t doubt it all, I wouldn’t have free will, I wouldn’t be able to truly believe.

    Faith is a choice, one way or another. We’re always making that choice. Here’s what I feel like you need to hear: Sometimes you have to choose to believe God is who He says He is, whether you’ve seen the promises fulfilled or not. Whether you feel forgiven or not. Whether you’ve felt that unconditional love or not.

  2. whoa… “sun of God”

    what a typo!

    Anyway. It’s good to have you blogging again. 😀

  3. “Similarly, it is fallacy to say that something is wishful thinking because of desire. If a man and a woman are in love, we do not tell him that she and her love are imaginary, simply because he desires that it should be so.”

    It is true that not everything that is desired is imaginary, but it is also true that desire does not make something true. Desire to have something (love, beauty, freedom, death, God) does not bear on the immediate realness of the thing desired very much at all.

    You say much of the same thing here yourself, concerning more measurable responses:

    “Neither reasons why people may believe in God, nor possibilities of how we may have invented the idea, determine whether it is valid.”

    However, I do not think it is fair to discount any reasons people believe in God from consideration. You do not cut out data from an experiment as delicate as this one because you feel it does not match the answer you seek or you feel the reason is too base or worldly. What is too worldly? Where do you draw the line? What if people believe for numerous reasons including one of these ‘base’ reasons.

    As you say yourself:

    “On an engineering test, it is not acceptable to leave out steps that lead to the answer…”

    If you include unverifiable stories about little girls, I think it is fair to also include the people who factually can be found on the street who believe in God (or are Atheists) for reasons similar to the ones you discounted above.

  4. This post was written because:

    A) I believe that ideas can be committed to and real conclusions reached. Even so, people behave as if they have done this, even if they deny it in theory, and have written papers on it.

    B) Atheists who have reached conclusions about the existence of God, or in this case the validity of Christianity, based on such observations as I have detailed, are behaving no differently than Christians who believe, say, that e-mail forward story–though Christians who believe the story end up receiving criticism for it. So for that particular subset of atheist and agnostic, I point out that it is not an intellectually defensible way of coming to the conclusion.


    The other purpose of my writing this was to disagree with the idea that “since we cannot know things for certain, we should not commit to them,” precisely because that in itself is a commitment (just like the more well known adage “action is inaction.”) That seems to be exactly what you’re saying as well, and it seems to me that we agree.

    As for that story, I wasn’t picking on the idea behind it.


    (I had a medium-lengthy MSN discussion with Teshi that clarified my meaning and responded to the comment, I don’t think it especially needs to be reproduced)

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