Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Guest Post: Jeff on "What is Faith?"

A reader called Jeff has sent in a lengthy response to my article entitled What is Faith? which was too long to fit in the comment form. With his permission I am publishing it here and linking back to it from the original article.

This is Jeff's response:

I could title this comment “in defense of faith,” but in reality it is defense of my Faith.  What is worse is that I’ve mostly written it to or for myself,  as the spectrum of how people came to believe (in any religion) is too diverse to assume that my own experience will speak to anyone else…but since I can’t rule it out I’ll subject you to it anyway :-).  In my experience, I feel that many people have the type 2 Faith you described, and then rely on type 1 to help them "prop" it up.  Unfortunately, I think this is why creationism and some other silly things (e.g. search for Noah's ark) have been such big hits for some people.  I think we have an innate desire to believe in something greater than ourselves(whatever it is), and at some point we better come up with some reasons to support it.  Come to think of it, my own faith was largely in your second category and basically stayed there until I began college.  During those years I confronted the fact that at least some of my faith was built on piles of rubble (creationism, et. al.), and it all came crashing down.  There's the rub, when one dispossesses a part of one's worldview, then one has to figure out what others parts are up for plunder.

That is when I switched to your first definition.  I didn't require proof, but if I was to maintain a (Christian) Faith, it at least had to be reasonable (at least to me), and what I had before certainly wasn’t that.  It took some time to sort things out, and for awhile I wasn’t sure which way it would go.  Honestly, to really sort out the various debates one has to be better versed in theology, etc., than I am.  From what I can tell, these arguments ultimately reach a point of minutiae, e.g., was the Greek word really intended to be this or that because one letter may have been transcribed improperly from one version to the next, etc., where one wonders what one was debating in the first place (and why).  It’s not that these aren’t important, but they can sometimes take on a whole other entity which loses relevance from the place in which the question started.  Obviously, I’m biased as to where it all ends up.  I presume you’ve already dealt with a lot of this, but nonetheless I’ll refer to the following in case you haven’t seen it, which I’ve found helpful from time to time:

see Wittgenstein's net:

As I’ve said, even though I am by and large a skeptic, I’m biased as to where the argument ends.  I’ve already acknowledged that I’m not an expert with such matters, so keeping that in mind I generally have three problems with the “anti-Christian” movement.  First, as far as I can tell, it is a bit too common to start with a presupposition of naturalism.  It is presumed that the supernatural has not occurred, so that which has the guise of the supernatural must be explained, a priori, as something else.  We may as well get to the crux of the matter, I’m generally speaking of the historical death and Resurrection of Jesus, for if either is explained away then Christianity is a lie, which, as you know, the Apostle Paul acknowledged.  However, this presupposition is a dead end, for if one cannot allow for the possibility of the supernatural, then there isn’t really anything to debate.  One can still argue that Jesus never actually died, or that a pack of wolves made off with His body, but one must also allow for a supernatural explanation as also being a possible cause for the events as described in the Gospels.  Then, once those initial debates are hashed and rehashed (with both sides thinking they’ve won), one moves on to the veracity of the documents themselves (where the real minutiae debates begin).  At the end of the debate, it seems possible for rationale, intelligent, experts in the field to maintain or disdain belief, both are possible.

My second problem is actually related to a problem I have with creationism.  When a creation “expert” talks about creation for too long, one starts hearing about how there was water in the heavens and in the earth that came spilling out, blah blah blah, and a whole list of other things in an attempt to harmonize the story with the real world in which we live, and by the time it is finished I find myself thinking, “whoa, did I just wake up from some strange dream?”  When it comes to the historical Jesus, I see a similar development occurring in the camp that is arguing against its historicity as presented in the Bible.  A whole list of circumstances and happenings that could have happened to ensure that Jesus either did not die in the first place, or did not rise from death, etc..  Some are clever, no doubt, but ultimately, giving a list of possible circumstances that change the face of the story to harmonize it with their desired version of the events doesn’t hold a lot of water for me, and is a little too close to what creationists have to do for their story.  In the end, we’re still left with a very unflattering portrayal of 11 men who after the reported resurrection of Jesus started an incredible transformation that spread around the world.  It hasn’t always been neat and pretty, but it happened and it started with them.  To enlist a whole series of extra biblical events which explain the events described in the Gospel while asserting that the way it is described is the wrong version (which still led to their transformation) of those events seems a bit incredulous, at least in my opinion.

Lastly, having read and listened to enough of these debates, I wouldn’t necessarily categorize this group of Christian “debunkers” as a happy lot (which, granted, doesn’t necessarily make their arguments false).  In general, it appears to me that they have a chip on their shoulder.  They really want to prove that Christianity is a false religion, and the tone of contempt is fairly apparent (I do understand the tone, some times I take it on myself with regards to my response to creationism--I'd like to think it is righteous anger, but I doubt it).  It is hard to say how that plays out in the rest of their lives, but it seems to me that trying to remove the source of Hope for millions of people carries a high price.  I can see being angry at Christians for a few things (I am, and I am one), but this is a very deep resentment that causes me to question their ultimate objectivity on the matter, and I say that knowing they would accuse me of the same thing but for the opposite reason.  So be it.

One can go back and forth with the debates ad nauseam, I believe, so for now let’s forget that and just call it a draw whether it is or not.  Let’s say that both sides of the debate knock their heads together and both sides fall back with only minor concussions.  The death and Resurrection can neither be proven or disproven as being historically accurate as a supernatural event, and the words of the Gospels and New Testament, although all bearing witness to the same thing, cannot be proven or disproven as factually accurate or inaccurate (collectively speaking).  

Before I go on, if you have time please take a moment to read this blog by Chris Tweitmann (a fantastic Lutheran Pastor of a Church in Huntington Beach, CA—as an aside, I do not attend this Church (as it is a couple of states away)).  I believe you may find it insightful:

So now what?  It is true that there are many excellent scholars out there who know the material who would  not identify themselves as Christian.  On the same note, there are also brilliant scholars who are experts in the Biblical material and history who are strong believers.  I studied (for one quarter) under a professor who was one of the translators for the NIV Bible (portions of the New Testament); possessed a vocabulary that, if his aim was to confuse the student, could deliver the entire lecture in multi-syllable words that most of us had never heard (and not just Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic); was fully aware of the “historical problems” of the New Testament, etc.; however, he was still confident in the message of the Gospel to the point that he would street evangelize.  Wrongly or rightly, I have not had a lot of respect for most of the street evangelism that I’ve encountered.  However, I would have sat on a wet and slimy sidewalk to hear him.  This is just one small example, but it serves to illustrate that my own faith is also built on the faith and experiences of others who have gone before me or are with me now.  There are too many people I know and respect who have had experiences that have humbled and inspired them (and myself) to follow Jesus, and I would be in error if I were to discount them all as a strange psychological (and in some cases unexplainable) phenomena and reject them as having no merit (note, I would be wrong to do so for believers in other religions who have had similar revelations).  Quite frankly, I have had some of my own experiences.  In fact, I basically challenged God to reveal himself to me.  Different words, but same idea, at least it was a humble prayer, and in retrospect it was a stupid one, but nonetheless God confirmed He was listening because within 10 seconds there was a very clear response.  It was with regards to a normal natural phenomena, and entirely explainable as such, but the timing was impeccable.  Moreover, it wasn’t enough.  I still nearly rejected it all even after my own experiences had previously “confirmed” that there was a loving God, and this has helped me understand how the disciples could appear so dense in their seeming unwillingness to accept Jesus for who He was and is.  However, the sum of the community of Faith in which I live has been critical to my own.  Below is a link to another example of how others have experienced come to this case it is a bit disturbing.  It is a true story from our current interim Senior pastor about how his father came to Faith, and it is worth hearing (it’s a Presbyterian Church, but you’ll be relieved to know that he was never a lawyer--though he was a 2nd grade school teacher at one point, for whatever that is worth).  I've learned that Pastor Robert Bayley is wise beyond his years (which says a lot considering he's in his 60's-70's).  As an aside, I had to ask for help locating this file as I didn't remember the title, and Robert, knowing only a few details, asked that the person on the "receiving end" know that they can email him at any time regarding this story--you can find his email through the website below, or I can send it to you if you want.
look for: 06-20-10 (Rev. Robert Bayley) When Water is Stronger Than Stone

Lastly, through it all, this brings me to a third definition of faith that I’ve learned defines my own better.  In fact, though I say this with caution since I may be wrong, it may be that though your other two definitions are valid, they are incomplete and perhaps find their completion only when integrated with this 3rd definition.  This faith is of the sort that occurs in relationships, perhaps most closely related to the sort that occurs between spouses.  In my own case, my wife and I have made a commitment to be faithful to each other.  Often it isn’t easy, sometimes I don’t even want to bother with it (and more often she probably feels the same, for very good reason, I might add), and yet, in the end, the sum of our marriage is that we are faithful to each other.  Our mutual trust is our foundation that makes our marriage strong.  I have come to learn that this, more than the other two definitions, is the best definition of faith as it relates between God and myself.  What has surprised me, though it shouldn’t, is that in this relationship I am a (figurative) prostitute of the worst kind, I consistently violate my covenant to God not out of forced desperation, but for worldly desire.   And yet, for reasons I've read but still don't fully comprehend, He has remained Faithful to me.  For all the limits of my faith, His has no end.

I would suggest to you that God may not show his existence to you, at least not in the way you are hoping for.  If you’re as foolish as I am, then even if he does you will still find reason to turn question it.  I just don’t think it is supposed to be that easy.  If it were easy, our free will would take a thrashing, which God seems to have taken great ends to preserve, if one believe in God.  I would suggest that this 3rd type, that God is already there Faithfully waiting, may be more accurate.  I do not know if you will find it, and if you look I don’t even know if it will be easy to find.  You have had faith once, and so I don’t know what challenges stand in the way of finding it again, maybe you don’t want to find it?  I could go on and on…in fact, I already have (sorry).  In all honesty, I really want to say that if God wants you badly enough, he’ll find you.  However, I can’t say that.  I do believe He wants you badly enough, He must everybody or there is no God, but the reality is you might not find faith again.  In a world as complex as ours, I dare not boil faith down to a neat little package that you ought to fit into, because I would be wrong.

This is what I know, and I hope that it will not be completely blasphemous.  Let’s say there is a God, but pretend he hadn’t revealed himself yet and I had a chance to imagine what God would be like before His arrival.  Then pretend he showed up as the Jesus described in the Gospels, each book a little different (or even a lot different), but each a portrait of Jesus written for a specific audience and each ultimately consistent in proclaiming the same thing, which is what we have today.  Does this portrait look like what I would have predicted God to be?  My answer is an emphatic “no.”  However, there is one thing I need to take into account.  If I didn’t know anything about God, then the only other example I have regarding what to expect about God comes from nature. Sure, I have an imagination, but I’m specifically bound by human evolution and the various laws of nature that I have been subject to, so my creative initiative may have some limits when trying to contemplate an all powerful God.  Therefore, if God is God, what better way to reveal Himself then making His identity different from that which we already know all too well, in particular, it is that which is infused into almost every part of our being, pride (which, I think, can be seen as a natural outcome of “survival of the fittest”—worthy of more discussion, but I’ll leave it at that).  Humility, sacrifice forgiveness, redemption, unconditional love, etc., are hinted at starting from the early writings of humanity (I presume), and it’s not like these were all completely novel ideas until Jesus showed up, but there is nobody defined by “all of the above” who claimed to be God  (that I’m aware of) outside of Jesus.  We are told that He was born in the humblest of circumstances, dodged an attempt to be made king, was willingly and ruthlessly murdered for no legitimate crime of his own, and before it was over He forgave everybody for it.  After a complete and thorough rejection, He then validated His purpose and Kingdom through the Resurrection, which still has no good explanation today except for being what it is (in my opinion).  I’m bound by the evolution of my humanity, so only in retrospect do I even begin to understand that Jesus is counter to everything that evolution would have predicted that God might look like.  The attributes God uses to define ultimate power (humility, sacrifice, etc.) are not the attributes I would have chosen for God—certainly not what the Israelites were looking for.   Only looking beyond this world do I understand that “to pick up my cross and follow” and “to lose my life to find it” are completely logical statements when attributed to a God (wanting to be in relationship with us) who is trying to capture our attention by setting Himself apart from the normal understanding of how we think life is supposed to work.  Who knew that God would end up being the Suffering Servant (and that He would call us to be the same)?  If there is a God, is there a better way for “Him” to make Himself known to humanity then to show us that He is not bound by the same nature that we are (and that ultimately we are not or will not be bound by it either); that He exists outside of our own physical reality, but yet He can reach into it and give us a quick glimpse of who He is and for what we are intended while preserving the physical universe and our free will?

I don’t think I would use this argument to convert anybody to Christianity—the argument for theism from evolution…yeah, right.  I’m sure it is not sound enough to stand muster against even an amateur philosophical whipping.  Nonetheless, at least for me, it helps explain why the Gospel is the Good news.  I am enthralled by the world in which we live, but at the end of the day I’m not so thrilled by being bound to one of the most exquisite if not brutal laws of nature, natural selection, whose primary mechanism is defined by death.  I’m not too excited with humanity and how we, as a species, seem hell bent on self extermination and taking the rest of the world with us (I also wouldn’t have predicted that evolution would cause the most advanced species to make the most stupid blunders).  And I’m not exactly thrilled with myself, either.  I possess a constant desire for things that ultimately take away from what I would view as a purposeful life for myself (and therefore I risk them becoming my purpose).  I sit silent and stand still while countless millions around the world suffer needlessly at the hands of nature or the hands of each other.  I am sickened by the catastophic human condition, and yet I’ve done the equivalent of a finger twitch to try and stop it.  My awareness and apparent concern betray my culpability, so I am the worst of the lot.  Yet, in spite of this, I have been given a glimpse of the way to overcome the natural law and also the only real way that I can see which will lead to peace, mutual respect, understanding, unconditional love and forgiveness between peoples and nations.  Obviously, many of us who follow Jesus aren’t very good at following His lead, because as far as I can tell this world has a long way to go.  However, I know I don’t walk alone, I know I am forgiven, and tomorrow I can wake up and try again and keep doing so until the day I go Home, and in that I have faith.