Archive for May, 2009

Facing the World

Posted in The Narrow Path on May 31, 2009 by RWZero

Everything Will Be Okay

There is something about facing the world that cuts to the very core of each one of us. Our humanity trembles and quakes at the potential for loneliness, pain, failure and lack of meaning. There is no level of security that truly comforts us. Every last ounce of love, happiness and success can be taken from us in an instant. Even if we could perfectly secure all our loved ones and possessions, a change in our temperament or a sudden feeling of emptiness could render them all worthless. It doesn’t matter what season of life it is—there are days when facing the world seems utterly pointless and utterly depressing.

I’ve experienced many moments when I stopped caring about whatever I was doing. I gave up my pursuit of even the simplest goals, collapsed into a chair or a bed, and told myself that everything would be okay in the end.

“Everything will be okay.” That phrase is precious. From movies to pop songs to moments of silence in the darkest places, we attempt to convince ourselves that there is ultimately nothing to worry about. But will everything really, truly, be okay?

The Christian always has the option of answering this question with a heartfelt “yes.” By placing trust in something that is not subject to the uncertainties of life, he plays a trump card. Barring the uncertainty inherent in faith itself, the belief in life after death negates the threat of catastrophic upheaval in this life. A belief that can provide this kind of consolation seems priceless at best and harmless at worst. Yet I’m convinced that those of us in the evangelical church have mishandled this belief and, failing to tend it properly, are reaping a bad crop. I hypothesize that the Christian belief in higher purposes, and possibly even heaven, has been handled by evangelicals in a way that reduces the quality of their work, their ambition, and their willingness to suffer.

I once read about a retail manager who was hesitant to hire Christians, because “Christian kids [didn’t] work as hard.” In the book, there was no explanation as to why this might be—only an exhortation to behave differently. But it’s perfectly clear to me why Christian kids don’t work as hard: they don’t think stacking boxes is an important thing to do. Their sights are set on lofty spiritual things, which have little to do with the mundane and frivolous activities that make up day to day life. How can you be enthusiastic about folding pants for minimum wage when the creator of the universe has called you to change the world for his purposes? This may seem like a difficult question, but only because it’s been wrongly framed. The small things are meaningful, and not simply by virtue of their contribution to some grand end of all things. It is because the way of living that produces quality in one’s work, the holistic manner of dealing with life that reflects our core values and motivators, cannot help but produce something great. The Trappist monks of Belgium make excellent beer. Their goal is not to make better beer than others do, but simply to make beer as a means of subsistence. It so happens, however, that it is excellent.

I have also noticed a lack of ambition in the church. I imagine that this arises not only from a belief in life after death (what point is there in seeking meager fulfillment in earthly things, when something infinitely greater awaits you without any required effort?), but also in the wariness of seeking fame and fortune. We are to be humble; the first will be last, and the last will be first. But accumulating wealth is not the same thing as misusing it, achieving something is not the same as gloating about it, and proper ambition should not be considered solely from the perspective of personal gain. Proper ambition is a natural realization of our identity, and to believe that we are intentionally created beings is to place a far greater meaning on this identity. If it was worth doing in the first place, was it not worth doing well? Although the parable of the talents in the New Testament was a story about money, and not “talents,” in the English sense of the word, I think it is perfectly analogous. Ignoring your potential in order to increase immediate pleasure, using extraordinary abilities to achieve ordinary results with less work than others: this is more self-serving than ambition.

Finally, there is a sense in which the church that I’ve grown up with over the years is averse to suffering. Prayers are offered up incessantly for the simplest and most trivial matters, and suffering is seen as such an injustice—our faith seems to waver, as we ask: “How could God let this happen?” This is curious, considering that Christians around the world suffer greatly for their beliefs. Perhaps the aversion to suffering arises from the feeling that God is a cosmic father who looks after his children in tender ways. Perhaps it arises from believing in a place where there is no suffering, leading the Christian to ask why we have to endure this at all. For the atheist, this is all there is: I wonder if they don’t sometimes do a better job of appreciating it, and accepting the limitations? Nonetheless, being a Christian makes life harder, not easier. If you are one, you believe something truly odd—that God willingly experienced suffering. To expect that life will not leave any marks on you is equally odd. Everyone else is doing a fine job of suffering the inevitable; we’re supposed to do a good job of suffering things we don’t have to.

I have made all these mistakes myself. It is somewhat paradoxical that I have known a great many people who have shown opposite tendencies to the ones I’ve described above: at one point, nearly every Christian I knew in the scientific disciplines was an extraordinary achiever, leading my friend and I to refer to them as “The League of Extraordinary Godly Men (and Women).” They were not selfishly motivated, arrogant, or obsessed with their efforts. I surmise that they were simply demonstrating the truth of what I have just written.

Face the world. That’s what we’re here for.

Advertisements

Gestalt

Posted in The Facts and Ideas on May 26, 2009 by RWZero

Let us not Ypologistimorphize

Computers_Black

Computers_Black2

Computers_Black3

Straw and Sand

Posted in The Facts and Ideas on May 17, 2009 by RWZero

Men and their Foundations

I know a lot of people who don’t like the idea of apologetics. It seems to leave a sour taste in their mouths. I can imagine good reasons why they might feel this way: the tenets of Christianity cannot be proven, faith comprises a great deal of personal experience, and people aren’t interested in losing arguments for which they are ill-prepared. I empathize with the general aversion to arguing about religious truths, but I object to the general apathy that has spread throughout the church. [1] Two consequences are immediately obvious to me: many people do not know why they believe what they do, and critics are getting away with too much. Though the former problem is graver than the latter, it is about the latter that I will write here.

The problem is, by some counts, symmetrical. People with unfounded belief encounter people with unfounded unbelief—but when such encounters occur it is the believer who must limp from the fight, fix the problem, and return to the skeptic with an answer. Belief requires justification. Skepticism alleges that justification lacks. In a world where justification is not sought, the skeptic is vindicated.

Skeptics are not necessarily out to crush religious believers. They are often content to provide a personal interpretation of religious belief, along with their reasons for rejecting it. Unfortunately, these often take a familiar form—a lofty metanarrative that is handily dismantled, followed by the implication that skepticism should be defaulted to, and need not even be defended. If beliefs built on sand ought to be shaken, then unbelief of a similar nature ought to be shaken as well.

The arguments I am referring to lend themselves to itemization:

People used to believe in God because we needed explanations for the world around us. Today science has explained the world, but the idea of God has lingered on regardless.

It is not sufficient to present reasons why one might have religious beliefs, if one were mistaken. This does nothing to falsify the belief itself, and it does not address the beliefs held by people today. In a pre-scientific age, it is only natural that the unknown should be attributed directly to a God that is already presumed to exist. This aside, science has not answered the unknown—it has only rearranged it, and at best, hidden it from plain sight.

People believe in religion because they aren’t strong enough to cope without it.

People also reject religion so that they can have increased personal freedom (usually having something to do with sex). Both statements are ultimately meaningless.

Religion is irrelevant to my life. I do not need it. Therefore, there is no reason why I ought to believe in any religion, or even the existence of God.

God is admittedly irrelevant—unless, of course, he happens to exist. You consider religious belief irrelevant because you believe that it is false. You live as if it is false because you consider it irrelevant.

Bullsh*t

This is an example of something that works better in practice than in theory.

I am morally outraged by a God who would produce the result that I see before me.

This is a legitimate concern with a long answer. There is also a short answer: there is no correlation between the truth, and how much it makes you mad. [2]

Lots of scholars, academics, and most of my professors at university say…

What do you say?

I find that, similar to poking holes in a theory without offering a replacement, many arguments against belief are arguments only against illegitimate beliefs. It does not matter why some people believe—it does not even matter why most people believe. What matters is whether the belief itself stands up to scrutiny, and moreover, whether it is true. Has it really come to the point where our position on religion is chosen in a similar manner to our taste in clothes?

A proper argument for a non-religious worldview attempts to demonstrate fallacies in the belief system itself. More importantly, it makes a case for why skepticism is the better alternative (as discussed previously, it supplants the theory).

I struggle to answer difficult questions, but I will not make concessions to someone who fails to ask me those questions.

———————————————————————————————————————————–

[1] Or society in general, of course.

[2] Even Einstein, who surely realized this, couldn’t let quantum physics be.

God Does Not Exist in the Morning

Posted in Faith Experience on May 10, 2009 by RWZero

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Thunder.

This can’t possibly be real. Who am I? Why do I exist? I’ve been interrupted so suddenly from a dreamless sleep. I wasn’t ready. This can’t be real, it must be a mistake.

I’m afraid. It’s the moment before the familiar has returned to me, and I cannot accept anything at all. There ought to be nothing; there ought not to be something. There simply cannot be a God, for I’d have felt him by now. He ought not to be there either.

Hail. My hand to the window, peel back the blind. Never seen anything like this before—they’re never this big, it’s never this dense. Seems as if the very sky is falling. Feels like the moment in a heated argument before violence. But no climax comes. I see it all as a stranger might, if such a stranger could be imagined. A stranger who knows nothing of something; a stranger who knows only of nothing. I feel as if I’m seeing everything as it actually is, all strange and horrific. The grey sky, the car in the driveway, sheets in the bed—my very thoughts—are completely empty. There can be no God, for I’d have felt him by now. It’s been seconds since the thunder, and I am still afraid.

I will slip back into bed; I’ll slip back out of existence. If I awake, then, I awake comfortable and deluded. I will see things as they seem. For there have been many mornings, even without the thunder, where nothing seems. Only that horrible paradox; that terrifying place where there is no sense, no meaning even in the denial of meaning. Down here, where I am, God does not exist in the morning. I cannot wake until he does.

To Pray out Loud

Posted in Humour etc. on May 10, 2009 by RWZero

Pray-out-Loud

Exclusivity

Posted in The Facts and Ideas on May 3, 2009 by RWZero

Chasing the Impossible Harmony

There is a point that has been made many times, and I am not convinced that its critics are to be taken seriously. Yet in everyday conversations, people still deny this point, and my incredulity compels me to rehash it in my own words, though I add nothing to the conversation. The point is this—that religions are not the same, and that no matter what the truth about God, life and death turns out to be, the majority of people on this planet are wrong about it.

Outlining the similarities between religions is a common tactic. It’s usually done for one of two reasons. The first is an attempt at tolerance and political correctness by ambiguously “spiritual” people. If everyone’s religion is equally valid, there’s no need to fight. We can all learn to be one big happy family. Interestingly, many such people become hostile and venomous when they encounter someone who belongs to one of these religions, and who disagrees. You’d think they’d see the irony. The second is an attempt by atheists to show that, since religious people think most other religions are bogus, their religion is also bogus, since all religions are similar. The latter point is quite sensible, and does not deserve to be slandered outright—its meaning is entirely different from the former. The former point is foolish, but it lives on in the depths of our minds and emotions.

World religions have several things in common. Discussing these things is unnecessary, however, because there is one thing that none of them can have in common—the truth. A religion always defines a specific conception of the truth, which differs from that of another religion. Any attempt to unify two or more religions within this framework necessarily denies the exclusive claims of the religions in question. This is why converting to Bahá’í is not a valid solution to the problem. I once went into the Bahá’í centre on Bloor street and talked to the woman at the desk there. She hadn’t read much of the Bible, but it was surely inspired by God, she said. So was everything else. She then proceeded to use the analogy of several people feeling different parts of an elephant, and discovering that they were all, in fact, part of the same elephant. This idea made her happy. It was all very cute, but there is nothing about an elephant’s ear that precludes it from being part of an elephant. There are definitely things about Islam, Christianity and Judaism that preclude them from being part of Bahá’í. This does not mean that Bahá’í cannot be true, just that it is no less exclusive. It demands that the exclusive claims of other religions be rejected, which makes them all—in the sense that they are defined by their adherents—false. The only sense in which they are valid is from the perspective of a believer in Bahá’í, who alone understands their true, hidden purpose. Belief systems like this still proclaim that everyone else is wrong. Their only achievement is to deny that all these wrong people are going to hell.

Questioning people about their thoughts on the truth produces intriguing results. A surprising number of them crumble under the pressure of chasing the impossible harmony. They often run out of things to say. Something is true, and to their horror, most people don’t believe it! An agnostic position does not solve the problem, because a committed agnostic claims that indecision and ambiguity are the correct approaches. It still claims an exclusive meta-truth: that the truth is unknowable, or even irrelevant.

It bothers some people when I attempt to explain away strange or seemingly paranormal events in terms of my own religious worldview, even though these events might appear in the context of another religion (or simply another spiritual perspective). Staunch naturalists won’t raise this issue, of course. But if you grant the possibility that an unseen reality exists, you should grant that my God is not playing chess with your God in between miraculous events. Either we are both misinterpreting what’s really going on, or one of our conceptions of the truth can be explained in terms of the other.

The moral of this story is that the chances of knowing the truth do not go up with vague spirituality, indecision, or religions that are friendly to other religions. If anything, they decrease. The best approach–and I think most reasonable people would agree–is to make an effort. You cannot let it upset you that the majority of people will disagree. They do right now, and until a religion on this planet surpasses 50% of the world population, they always will.

I am sometimes asked: “How can you believe that you have the truth, and that everyone else is wrong?” When the question is asked of me honestly, I answer it honestly: I simply know that there must be a truth, and I’m doing my best to find it. There is no way to reconcile everyone else’s contradictory beliefs. When the question is asked of me confrontationally, I answer sharply: “The same way you do.”