Archive for April, 2010

Layers in the Atmosphere

Posted in Faith Experience, The Narrow Path on April 25, 2010 by RWZero

The Taste of Belief

We know that believing something is quite different from living it. But for the religious, what does “living it” mean? Let us refrain from stating the obvious—I am not referring to the good deeds that one ought to commit, but the aspect of our beliefs that strike us as having the most gravity.

There is first what I call the Mighty God perspective, or what I call “the calm, dry, dusty, short life.” I think here primarily of missionaries, a sun that is up more often than down, brick buildings, stained glass windows, thinly dispersed crowds, and having no care at all for the expectations of the culture. One acquires this perspective by internalizing the truth about death, transience, and eternity. We are all just passing through. It is not that life has no value, but that it only has value inasmuch as it affects the hereafter. I look upon people who hold this perspective with some awe, because they are not only consistent individuals, but they are imbued with a real aura of transcendence. They are not like some, who will themselves to give up the pleasures of life, and in doing so only increase their own appetites. No, they are like men among caged animals, peaceful as the afternoon breeze through fields of overgrown and dying crops. A conversation with them will cast a light upon our world of ties, suits and profits that makes it seem quite silly. Nonetheless, there are dimensions of the human experience are left out of this paradigm, and it is difficult to explain why they should exist, if we should not explore them. How much of an impact can one expect to have upon the world if one does not understand it?

There is second what I call the Friendly God perspective, or what I call “the colourful life.” I think primarily of brightly-coloured lights, emblems, extensive prayers, short-term mission’s trips, aesthetic considerations, and motivational books. One acquires this perspective by focusing upon the natural conclusion that God must have created us to live life as best we can, and to have it to the fullest. Naturally, he should help us along in this endeavour. People possessed of this mindset are happy; but they are not always in touch, and they are not always fulfilled. They may not realize this unless great tragedy strikes. Indeed, when carried to extremes, it is difficult to distinguish this type of religiosity from simple optimism.

There is third what I call the Mysterious God perspective, or what I think of as “the secret life.” I think primarily of my own experiences. The most important thing to me is what I, the individual, am to do right now. My beliefs cannot be predicated upon attachment to a present or—barring the natural hope that faith requires—future condition. There is no saying what shall happen in the future, and no decision that I would or would not make if I knew it. Human experiences are to be explored, inasmuch as it allows me to know what I am to do, and as it enables me to do it. This mindset casts the world in a very real light, as if each thing must contain some commentary upon the truth; for if it had nothing to do with the truth, it could not exist. It is long because the hereafter is far off, and it is secret because it requires the individual to discover what cannot be discovered for him. Nonetheless, in this paradigm it is more difficult to make commitments of the type that will allow one to endure a great deal of physical or emotional pain. There is potential for the individual to lose the sense of humility and insignificance that is sometimes due.

Even the known truths cannot demand a mood from us. With regard to those truths that are held as a position of faith, there are as many moods as life itself contains.

Doubt

Posted in Faith Experience on April 18, 2010 by RWZero

The Only Certain Thing

I have taken an account of my doubts, and I have found as many as an atheist might. They course through my veins, saturating my being. They scream out against faith, such that my own beliefs burn me in every place that they touch me. I often wonder, when I hear stories of “overcoming doubt,” whether the doubters have truly experienced it. They assuage each other’s doubts with the sort of talk that drives me to doubt in the first place. True doubt is not a mere feeling to be overcome. It entails the actual possibility of abandoning what has always seemed true. It is standing on the edge of a great precipice, at the very boundary between here and there–like dreams of falling, whereby the ground seems to rush up towards you again and again, as if you have fallen anew each time. You wake up with a start, on level ground until you next dream.

I cannot hope to escape too easily. Many great thinkers of the modern have become atheists or agnostics, and the great understanding of these people seems to force on them the same conclusion that my lesser understanding merely tempts me with. In them, also, I find an honesty that is missing from the most militant detractors and supporters of faith alike—having addressed the questions respectfully, they acknowledge uncertainty. But they do not make much of it.

The Christian may say that doubt masks deep-seated issues, and that intellectual objections are actually moral outrage, and an unwillingness to surrender one’s life to God. I cannot accept this as a universal explanation. I believe in intellectual doubts. I also believe in impenetrable human bias, however, and so cannot even claim certainty in this matter.

I see no value in expounding the full inventory of my doubts, for laying them out on the table does not reduce their number, and thinking about them does not make them more palatable. I am convinced, presently, that many of them are permanent things, and my feelings towards them on a given day are a function of a myriad host of factors.

I do not doubt the existence of God, but what does this count for? The pantheism of Einstein and the agnosticism of Carl Sagan are just a short ride away. There is little meaningful effect in this belief per se. At best, it allows me to intellectually justify an ineffable feeling of lightness and awe at the worst of times.

My belief has taken on the appearance of a choice; a path wandered down. I do not feel, presently, that I can tell anyone why they ought to believe as I do. To be religious—to believe in particulars—is too much to expect of someone who does not feel the need. Such a person will not do it. A friend of mine did not think this was such a terrible thing; when I told him that it troubled me, he said “Why? Just believe it yourself.”

Wherever there is commitment, there is doubt. As a believer in any one thing, I would be racked with doubts of an even greater magnitude. This much I know. The only thing that could rescue me from this is an absence of belief altogether, and enough pleasurable distractions to mask the dissonance. I am a naturally happy person when I am playing the game of life, but I cannot play it incessantly.

When in doubt, we seek assurance. The materialist spouts acerbic incredulity at the first sign of anything transcendent, waving his hands madly in the air. The Christian prays an endless stream of childlike beckoning, asking for even the smallest sign of this same transcendence. The approach is unsatisfying. The unbearable discomfort of intellectual commitment is the reason for the word “faith.” It is not the denial of real uncertainty, but the decisions one makes about it.

Some of the impossible questions in life are deeper and darker than any human perspective can cope with. They cannot be answered, but they must be dealt with. I know that my faith is a human interpretation of something that I believe is greater and incomprehensible, but nonetheless true in essence. I know that there is no obstacle to my beliefs so great that it wholly denies me access to them; moreover, there are few such obstacles that do not also block every other door in sight.

When we speak of “yielding to doubt,” there is misdirection—we are rejecting a position of faith, but we are not accepting an alternative. When Jesus asked his disciples if they wanted to leave him, they did not blithely answer in the negative. They asked: “To whom shall we go?”

Doubt in and of itself is not an alternative, but the vague promise of alternatives.

Suffering

Posted in The Narrow Path on April 11, 2010 by RWZero

Why?

Suffering continually makes the A-list of objections against the existence or benevolence of God. It has never been much of a problem for me. I mean this in both senses: I have neither suffered much, nor have I found it much of an obstacle to belief in God.

The infliction of physical pain or death has been elevated to the gravest of sins in our day. Why is this? Let us be excessively rational for a moment. There are so many things that cause greater devastation to human beings. Killing someone only robs that person of the time they have left before they die naturally. Perhaps we are increasingly unwilling to acknowledge the inevitability of death? Perhaps murder and torture are the only things most of us would not do. By condemning them vigorously, we can continue to believe in morality while remaining thoroughly righteous ourselves. Moreover, if we wouldn’t kill or inflict pain, how can we worship a god who does?

Let us now stop being so rational. One may invent reasons why suffering exists. One might say that God allows suffering because of the wonderful fruits of compassion and forgiveness that come spilling out. Instead of giving even the slightest pause to that thought, consider this: that so many of the complaints about suffering, evil, and the terrible god who is behind it all, come from very comfortable people.

I have occasionally heard the story of a man who stopped believing in God because of his suffering, but only occasionally. I have heard countless stories of people who lost their belief in God because of other people’s suffering. I have heard even more stories of people who came to believe in God in the midst of their personal suffering. The question of suffering, in my experience, is rife with irony.

Religion continues to decline in the developed world, and it continues to explode in the undeveloped world. It is more likely to thrive in places where people suffer than in places where people have everything. This cannot be blamed on ignorance or scientific illiteracy. There is another explanation: that people are willing to reach for God when they have little else to reach for.

How can I account for the misery that I have experienced when all my needs, save for the very pinnacle of self-actualization, have been met? How arrogant must I be to defy God for making me watch the suffering of others, who themselves do not deny him, and whose experiences are not my own?

Jesus of Nazareth

Posted in Primary on April 4, 2010 by RWZero

If ever God interacted with human beings upon this earth, and if ever there were a time and a place in which he made himself known, one must ask (at least once, if never again) if it had something, in whole or in part, to do with Jesus—Jesus of Nazareth, a Palestinian Jew who lived thousands of years ago in the cradle of civilization, who, rising from complete obscurity, has had incalculable effects on the history of the world.

Despite the financial benefits of producing controversial books and movies, there are no legitimate doubts that the man existed. What is in doubt—and what has always been in doubt, since the hour of his death—is the nature of who he was, what he said, and what it means.

How can it be that such an ordinary man had such an impact upon the whole of humanity? He did not leave us even a single pencil stroke. Our knowledge of his words and deeds are limited to the information of witnesses. While he may have said a great deal to his contemporaries, we are privy to almost none of it. The sayings attributed to Jesus are pithy and few compared to the voluminous writings of Greek philosophers living hundreds of years before him. Can these precious few words account for his influence?

Christians believe in his divinity. Muslims believe that he is a virgin-born messenger of God. Buddhists might call him an enlightened teacher, and the atheists might call him a good man. This is an extraordinary legacy for a peasant. It is even more extraordinary when we consider that his words, as preserved in the gospels, are an unlikely source of such widespread and transcendent appeal, in and of themselves. Anyone who reads the gospels will not likely be content to call Jesus a good man. There are sayings of his—and they are the ones least likely to have been augmented—that one simply does not expect. What kind of a person says these things?

The only explanation for Jesus’ far-reaching influence is that he had a profound effect on the people he was in contact with. By the time the gospels were written, the movement had been growing for some time, and it did not start with people reading the Bible—it started with people being told something by other people, who themselves believed it plainly.

We do not know what the disciples saw, but it stands to reason that they believed what they were saying. The truth of their testimony is surely not the only explanation for their belief. However, it is one explanation for this unique type of testimony. Religions have been founded without extraordinary claims, and of those that are founded with them, the founders have more than once found themselves in command of wealth, power, and even military might. This may be the only practical value of such claims. The original followers of Jesus enjoyed no such thing, however, and they could not reasonably have expected to—they were not preaching a belief system that would have allowed them to accept it, even if it had been offered to them.

Jesus was not claimed to be an enlightened man, but rather, a divine one. This claim is quite a stretch, and it cannot be taken lightly, as if it is a small point in a large list comprising the generic religiosity of Christianity. We speak often about religion, belief in God, and moral values. The fact is, these things can all exist apart from Christianity, and they do.  Christianity is not essentially about the observance of rules, the nature of an invisible God, or the pursuit of good teaching. It is about Jesus, and it is about him in a way that no other major world religion is about anyone.

Perhaps the conditions were just right. The sun may have been in precisely the right spot, the moods of the people may have been just so inclined, and the experiences of Jesus himself may have prepared him in just the right fashion. Perhaps not. Whatever the case may be, the life of Jesus of Nazareth is not a thing that should be summarily dismissed. It is worthy of the kind of curiousity that we give to strange things in the natural order, and it is worthy of the kind of curiousity that we give to things that may have something to do with us.