On Faith

Disclaimer: This post is from the archives, and may not represent the current views of the author. It also may not be at all interesting to read. Continue at your own peril!

Last weekend was quite interesting. I’ve taken a few days to reflect on the events that took place, and specifically refrained from posting anything about it right away, so that I would have that time to think about it. What happened this weekend? Well, my parents picked me up and took me home for the weekend, and while I was there, I had a nice discussion with them about my doubts. I figured that after about 10 months of having them, it was certainly time to let them know. Of course, I should have let them know long before that, but it’s taken me a long time to even come to grips with it myself, and I certainly didn’t want to worry them prematurely if I figured out a way to resolve them. But at any rate, I sat down with them and had a good two-hour discussion with them about God, the Bible, faith, and all things Christian. They really didn’t say anything I haven’t heard before, and I likely didn’t say anything they haven’t heard before, but it was still good to have a heart-to-heart chat with my parents. They let me know that it was okay to doubt, and that they would be praying for me. It was good to hear that from them, though I know that they would certainly be praying for me even if they hadn’t said that.

At any rate, I wanted to talk a little bit about faith. It’s a tricky issue, and it’s really something I need to figure out in my head. I’d like to write something about it so that perhaps I can sort out my brainwaves on the matter. It was something that got brought up several times in my discussion with my parents, and I think it’s really a crucial issue, because ultimately, the Christian belief structure comes down to…faith. There is no deductive argument for the existence of God, so there will always be some sort of leap from any premises or evidence to the conclusion that God exists. Such a leap is what we know as faith. But in my discussion, my dad described the process essentially like this: First you have faith (or belief, perhaps), and then you begin to see the evidence that lines up with it. He said several times that it was backwards to how the world thinks.

But that doesn’t really sit right with me. It immediately reminded me of an article I read once about critical thinking. I don’t seem to have it bookmarked anymore, but essentially it was an article that talked about various paranormal events and odd phenomenon. In it, the author started talking about “psi energy”, and he mentioned that one of the tactics these people use is to say that their powers only work if the audience is free of “skepticism.” In other words, you have to believe that he can do it before he is able to do it. At first blush, perhaps this seems reasonable, or perhaps it doesn’t, but this allows for two things. First, having a bunch of already-believers in the room allows for manipulation of various kinds to take place (whether intentional or unintentional) – they’re more likely to see what the person suggests to them. Second, it provides a convenient explanation. If the person’s “psi energy” does not work, they can blame it on some hidden skeptic in the room, and that is that. Any time it works, it’s one point for them, but any time it doesn’t work, there’s an explanation that can write it off. And that way of looking at the world, I think, plays at least some role in the beliefs of Christianity. Any time anyone tells you to believe first, then see the evidence, I encourage you to be suspicious. Such a scenario is ripe for con men and tricksters. Now I don’t mean to equate pastors and theologians with such people, but what I am saying is that the same principles can apply.

So how do you counter such a scenario? How do you not get sucked into thinking that some falsehood is true, and distinguish the truth from fiction? Well, the first method is to be skeptical. I know that skepticism sometimes is portrayed as a negative thing, but I don’t think that it needs to be so. Certainly we don’t want to be overly skeptical and start doubting that the outside world exists. I don’t think that in practical matters, outside of philosophical discussions, we need to go that far. But when we are confronted with an unfamiliar phenomenon, or something without convincing evidence, I think that the best approach is to be skeptical, and to seek evidence. Perhaps in some cases, this could turn out to be a bad mindset to have, but I have yet to think of one. If someone tells you that the Apollo astronauts never landed on the moon, and instead the government made fake pictures and videos in a top secret studio, be skeptical. If someone tells you that they are the descendant of Jesus Christ, be skeptical. If someone tells you that some archaeologist has found Noah’s Ark, be skeptical. Ask questions, and then seek evidence for and against each claim.

Incidentally, this is how the scientific method works. Science’s default position is skepticism (at least, true scientists doing good science are this way). Science works to test theories, and uses experiments to get at the truth. It is not a perfect methodology, but it is one refined in the fires of practical usage – it’s something that works for us, and I’d say it’s doing a pretty good job. We’ve doubled our life expectancy in a little over 150 years, we’ve come up with cures for diseases, and we’ve invented amazing technologies. You may say that science has produced much harm, but you must at least admit that science produces results. It gets us somewhere, because it works. Such scientific thinking is a way that we have to find truth about the world around us, and to explore the limits of what is possible.

But I digress. To get back to matters of faith, I had a thought the other day about how we know what exists. It seems like a simple question, but when you really think about it, how do we know what truly exists? Let’s assume for right now that, in most cases, our senses are reliable. Using that, then, the best way we know that something exists is because we can sense it – we can see it, hear it, smell it, touch it, or taste it. That redeems much of the world for us, but what about those things that aren’t immediately obvious to us? What about the wind? Or the atom? Or extra-solar planets? How do we know that these sorts of things exist?

I would like to assert that we know what exists by the effects that these things produce. In the case of most objects, they affect the light or the air to allow us to see or hear them. In the case of the things less obvious, like those I mentioned, we can assert that they exist by the effects that they produce. With the wind, we can see how it affects the trees, the leaves, and the other things that it blows around. Atoms produce very specific effects that scientists can measure and observe. With extra-solar planets, until very recently, astronomers could not see any directly, but could observe their existence by the pull that they effected on the suns around which they revolved. So even for those things we cannot observe directly, we can observe the effects they produce, and at least infer their existence with a measure of probability.

So how do we know that God exists? We certainly cannot see him directly, or hear his voice audibly. The only way we can observe his existence is by whatever effects he produces on the earth. Ultimately, it comes down to, “Can we see any evidence for him?” But how do we know that the effects we see truly come from him? There must be some way to show the link between God and the event we see. To be honest, I have no idea how one would do this. It does not seem possible that we could prove such a link with any degree of certainty. We see (possibly) created things, but we did not see the act of creation. We see a (possibly) inspired word, but we do not see Bibles descending from heaven. All the Bibles I’ve seen came from bookstores and printing presses. We see effects in people’s lives, but how do we know that other things did not cause these effects? If I pray for peace, I can receive a calming feeling, but people can create the same feeling through meditation. I get the same feeling when I sit down and read a good book. So how do we know that the prayer itself didn’t cause the change?

My point is that we don’t know. We don’t see these causal links, and we don’t see God himself either. In such an instance, as I mentioned previously, I think the best stance is skepticism. To be skeptical does not mean to dismiss a suggestion outright, but it means that we must search for evidence and then place our beliefs on such evidence. A skeptical person’s beliefs go where the evidence goes. But some might say that in the absence of such causal links for God, we must just have faith. Why, I ask? Why should I have faith when I don’t see effects that I know are from God? Such a stance specifically goes against the evidence, and a “psi energy” con man could say the same thing. I’m certainly not doubting the Christian’s sincerity, but I might object that a good dose of critical thinking is crucial. And I feel that such thinking is important in any area of anyone’s life.

I just have one last thing to say. On this topic, the standard Christian answer is as follows: “God wants us to have faith and truly believe in him and love him, and that would not be possible if he were to show us overwhelming evidence of his existence!” I understand this reasoning, and I’ve spouted it off myself many times when talking to non-believers. But let me point out where it breaks down – even from within the Christian belief system. First off, Christians (at least the literalist ones) believe in Adam and Eve. But Adam and Eve had pretty direct contact with God. He apparently walked with them in the “cool of the day”, and they seem to hear his voice pretty directly. I think they had every reason to believe that he existed, but yet they still chose to disobey him and sin against him. Proof of his existence didn’t seem to force them to have faith in him and love him.

A second example: In the future, most Christians believe that believers will be taken to heaven, where they will worship God forever and live in his presence. There, presumably, they would have pretty clear, concrete proof of his existence. Blinding light, maybe? Or a big, booming voice? I don’t know exactly, but living in his presence would imply that they have proof that he exists. But is their free will gone there? Are they now forced to love him because they believe he exists? And if God is so against that on earth, why would he want that to happen for eternity?

And a third example: In many Christian circles, Satan is believed to have once been an angel named Lucifer. Lucifer lived in heaven, again in the very presence of God. However, he still had the free will (and the guts) to rebel against God and essentially wage war against him. Did knowledge of God’s existence deny him the ability to rebel? It doesn’t appear so. The idea that proof or evidence of God’s existence would deny humans the ability to have the free will to love God does not appear to hold up, even under the Christian umbrella. So if we can have such proof and yet still have our free will, why does God still hide himself? Why doesn’t God beam the message of salvation directly into our brain, like a feature presentation directly onto our retinas, letting everyone know exactly how to be saved? People could surely still decide that they didn’t particularly like this God, or they could deny that it happened, or they could come up with some alternate explanation for it. It certainly wouldn’t convince everyone, but it would just as certainly convince more people. And if God loves us all and is “not willing that anyone should perish”, then why is he not using all the available means at his disposal (which is every means) to tell us about salvation? Why did he rely on a bunch of shepherds and fishermen to write down events that got passed down, altered, translated, jumbled around, modified, paraphrased, and then carried around for 2000 years, while using fallible humans to spread the most important message on earth around to a small fraction of the total human population? If you had to tell someone you loved something very important and very urgent, would you write them a letter, find a random person on the street and give it to them to pass along through hundreds of people until it got to them, or would you call them up and tell them yourself? The fact that God seems to have chosen the former option does not seem to say much for his love.

At any rate, now I am beginning to ramble, so I shall just cut it off here. I have become fairly convinced that faith is generally a poor method of making decisions – especially important ones. And I struggle very much with the idea that a God that loves us seems to do so little to convince us of that fact. Perhaps I have gone blind. Or perhaps I have begun to open my eyes to the truth. Either way, I am continuing to search in the only way I know how – using logic, reason, and common sense – and trusting that any Higher Power that may be up there will have the decency to search my thoughts and connect to me in a way that I can understand him.

4 responses to “On Faith”

Dave Carrol

I love your blog Jeff. We should hang out next time you’re home. I love talking about this kinda stuff. I’ve been thinking lots about the things you’re saying and respect your search for truth very much. I’d rather have someone who really DUG for truth than a lukewarm Christian who didn’t know why he believed what he believed and followed aimlessly.

But I’ll mention a few things that stand out to me. First off I’ll say that what we see as Christianity in North America bears little resemblance to what it looks like in Africa, Asia, South America… etc… Much of the evidence that you can’t see and we often fluff off in the “just believe, don’t question dummy” category DOES exist in much of the world. I’ll personally attest to it and I’d be happy to share some at some point. It pisses me off to no end that our churches are white bread and impotent too, because I do believe that people are different and see/process their faith through their “gifting goggles”.

I’m not lying about thinking lots about your blogging. I was even sharing your scenario with some close friends in a general discussion of “why people are discontent with the church and faith”. And someone who knew you as a very young boy was telling me about how you used to school the Sunday School you knew so much about the Bible… I had to laugh a bit because it’s clear how you process things. When you look at people whose “giftings” are more in the “teaching” and analytical area, they need more than “just have faith dummy”. And sometimes I feel sorry for that… BECAUSE

The premise that the world we see, touch, feel, smell, taste is how we judge truth doesn’t actually stand up. Even if you think about the context of a dying man. Its the invisible things like love and friendship and mean more than the tangible. Now that in itself doesn’t prove God, but I quite believe the opposite to be true that the spiritual world is the straw that stirs the drink of the natural world. And what we believe is like shoveling coal into whatever furnace we choose.

It’s why skepticism CAN be dangerous. Questioning and digging is GOOD. Excellent even. But “sow where you want to go” I do believe holds true. The search is good but you’ve got to be careful not to get lost in the physical world because you just TOTALLY find God there. There are results there but it’s all very tainted by man/sin/decay/ … that’s why you have to hope in things that aren’t seen. Because hope in what you can leads down a pretty crappy road.

You can’t just look at the results because we all suck all the time. Take a look at my blog today about Grace. I’ve been delving into it quite substantially lately and I think Christians have done their “testimony” wrong by portraying anything but a life that is dependent on God’s Grace for survival… because left to my own devices… I’m an asshole.

The thing about God forcing us is another interesting one.

Job 36:16 says: “He is wooing you from the jaws of distress to a spacious place free from restriction, to the comfort of your table laden with choice food.

I’ve thought lots about God’s “woo” and I think it’s a beautiful depiction of what he does. It’s like the cheap trick song… he says, “I want you to want me”. The groom wanting his “cheatin’ bride” to turn her affections to Him even though she’s a whore is a very real picture of the church.

Anyway… just some thoughts.
Really… lets hang out sometime

Jeff

Thanks for the comment Dave. I respect you and what you have to say, and I read your blog daily because your words are always full of insight. We should hang out at some point! I’ll let you know when I’m home next and maybe we can set something up. I’d especially like to hear some of the stories of your time in Africa – I’ve thought several times about whether my experiences here and my doubts are simply due to the North American culture. It’s a possibility, but one I can’t really verify since I have never even been out of the country before :S

At any rate, while I understand that we cannot rule out the supernatural realm, and we cannot just assume that the physical is all there is…there’s still a difference between the “intangible” things you mention like love, friendship, etc. and between the “spiritual”. Even the most unspiritual person can have love – heck, even dogs, cats, and monkeys show at least rudimentary forms of love and compassion. So such intangible feelings and actions, being very much real, do not really link themselves up nicely to the intangible spiritual realm.

Our physical world is all we see. We can hope that there is a world that we do not see, but at best it’s extremely difficult (if not impossible) to say that the invisible world produces effects in the physical world. That’s kind of what I was going for in my blog entry here. Even if there is something we see that we can’t explain, it still is more logical to believe that it’s just some natural law we haven’t figured out, or some property of the universe, than it is to believe that some unseen realm is influencing the seen one. Tainted by sin or not, the physical world is all we have to go on, because we have no way to see, touch, or feel the other world, and even if God interacts with us directly, he’s still doing so using our physical realm – our bodies and our minds. We have no connection to an unseen realm because we’re stuck in physical bodies.

Anyway, I read your blog today, and I was really just struck by the difference in mindset between a Christian and a non-Christian worldview. You go on about how you suck and you’re an asshole without God, and it seems so pessimistic and depressing. A humanistic worldview presents a positive, optimistic way of looking at humanity – no, we’re not perfect, but we have the ability to achieve something GOOD in this world. It’s a fundamentally different way of looking at things, and for the past little while, that’s how I’ve tried to look at things. Christianity says that you are nothing without God, but a secular humanist can look at you and say, “You’re worth something. You are human, and you have the potential to do great things.” Is that not so much more uplifting?

Anyway, I could go on. I might write something about that in more detail later this week, but we’ll see. Depends on how much time I have, I suppose. At any rate, thank you once again for your comment. It’s been encouraging to hear from others about the issues I’ve been going through, and it’s always good to know that someone cares enough to talk about it 🙂

Dave Carrol

Thanks Jeff!

Actually just a brief clarification. I’ve found that I suck even with God. I’m finding more and more that while God changes and free’s and does make you a better person… that at our root… this is an iniquity that we’re born into and must deal with in some way.

Knowing that I’m forgiven and living in the grace God gives me is how I continue to move. And pre-God days, there were days where I felt no reason to move because everything has a tainted colour to it when the arguments and solutions are played out. It’s still a man-made system designed to facilitate greed.

Most ignore the void. Some dull it. But it’s in the vanity with which we look in the mirror. The dark recesses of the soul where selfishness lurks. It’s in us and without something to “justify” it, it’s a void.

I’m afraid that I can’t buy the humanist point of view… for the same reason that seeing the obama posters with “Hope” written on it made me squirm. Because he sucks and walks in God’s grace just like me. Even the Queen poops.

For all the good people have done… doing things with our rational mind has made a big worldwide mess… but I guess this is the interesting paradox.

Because I think that the “I suck rant” doesn’t really mean that “I suck”… “I’m dirt” etc… because it’s “Christ in me that’s the hope of Glory”. But it can’t just be ME that’s the hope of glory.

The best that has come out of me over the years… the unselfishness, sacrificial, humble things have come from being submitted to something greater than me.

Jeff

I understand what you’re saying. And I wasn’t trying to say in my last post that I could ever say that humans could achieve “perfection”, like some sort of idealistic, completely others-focused sort of person. We are all inherently selfish. However, humans are also very pro-social creatures. Due largely to socialization, we learn very quickly that sharing is good, that doing things to help others is good, and we even learn to enjoy doing it as well. The great feeling you have when you hold the door for someone, or buy coffee for the person in line behind you – that’s a result of our pro-social nature.

Both ways of looking at things admit that we are selfish creatures. And both ways of looking at things say that we have the ability to do good things also. But the difference is that the humanistic view says that the power do to those good things – whether 80% of the time or 10% of the time – is within us, rather than outside us.

I suppose this is more just something I’ve realized. I was told growing up that the atheistic worldview is self-centred, miserable, hopeless, and nihilistic. But really, that’s not the case – not according to a humanist, anyway. The realization I had was that this was really the Christian worldview, AFTER taking God out of the picture. Christians look at the atheist worldview, and because they are still coming from their own mindset, they don’t realize (at least I didn’t realize) that it’s an entirely different way of framing the problem. It’s not a matter of just Christianity – God = Atheism. It’s a different equation entirely.

But just to throw my point out there a little further. You say that you suck as you are, but then Christ in you is the hope of glory that improves you, so to speak. As you take on the mind of Christ, you become more like him, and you become a better person. But let’s assume for just a moment that God doesn’t really exist. The result is that all along, it was you that had that power. You were the one that was improving yourself. And that still small voice telling you to do the right thing was really your own mind, allowing you to become someone more than just a selfish creature.

I’m not saying that this proves anything. Either view is a result that comes about after adopting a belief system, so it’s not something that can (or at least should) influence a decision to believe or not believe in God. I just find the differences interesting.

Leave a Reply