When believing hinders faith

Last post I highlighted the importance of truth-seeking and distinguished various types of truth, with the claim that the Bible focuses on relational truth. Yet before continuing the discussion I need to address what is likely the biggest obstacle to Christians succeeding at truth-seeking (thus developing a robust Christian faith):

Belief.

Excuse me?

To most Christians this probably sounds like madness: how can belief be a problem? Isn’t belief at the heart of what it means to be a Christian? My answer is: Yes and No. For that depends on what belief is—what sense of belief we are meaning.

Let’s first examine the sense of “belief” that is indeed essential for Christians to cultivate. This is belief as a result. In other words, the end-product of my engagement with the Bible and Christianity should be my belief that:

a) humans are a certain sort of being, beings who need to embrace and cultivate their faculties (imagination, rationality, will, memory, emotional response), certain self-understandings (trust and suspicion, confidence and humility, subjective objectivity) and certain relational “goods” (love, truth, patience, forgiveness) in order to thrive,

b) the God of the Bible seeks just the sort of relationship with humans wherein our faculties are most engaged, our self-understandings are best cultivated and our relational goods are maximized,

c) this God began such relationship with human being on a small-scale, with a nation called Israel, with the intention of then expanding these relationships on a global scale, potentially to include all people,

d) God’s relationship with Israel was formalized into a covenant: an agreement of how God and Israel would regard and act toward the other (and of how Israel was to govern itself and interact with others). Yet the intention for global-scale relationship was stalled when the people of Israel wholesale reneged on the agreement,

e) this intention was realized when Jesus of Nazareth, who is both human and divine, acted as Israel and both lived the life required to fulfil Israel’s side of the covenant and died a death that bore Israel’s penalties for having reneged on the covenant,

f) the Bible is a sufficiently trustworthy source of information on this matter, as understood through humans engaging their natural faculties in partnership with God’s guidance (the Holy Spirit).

In other words, the Bible is making certain truth claims about human nature, God’s nature, and the relationship between them, and frames these claims primarily through a series of unique historical events. To be a Christian is to validate these claims and their source—to attest to the positive, truth value of these claims and to the trustworthiness of the Biblical text concerning key aspects of human nature, God’s nature, and their interrelation. 1

So in what way should Christians not cultivate “belief”?

To answer that let’s redefine belief in its positive sense. In this first sense, used above, believing means affirming certain matters as “being the case” or simply being “true.” Several clarifications about belief are important here.

On the one hand, we refer to believing rather than knowing Christianity for two reasons. First, because Christianity deals with unique entities and events rather than with manipulable objects or repeatable phenomenon. So because it cannot be demonstrated through repetition, it cannot be proven scientifically. Second, because humans are the sorts of beings that know in limited ways: our knowledge is dependent on many factors and we possess a limited, or subjective, form of objectivity. Thus we cannot know “beyond doubt.” As such, belief is not just the only method of accepting Christianity, it is the best method.

On the other hand, belief in this sense is a result. It is an orientation that comes about through having cultivated our faculties and developed certain crucial self-understandings, while aiming at key, relational goods. In summary, belief follows the development and application of certain competencies, rightly aimed.

So if belief is the result of certain actions, it is clearly not the means by which that same result is achieved! In other words, holding particular beliefs (about who / what human beings are, God is, and what the relationship between the two should be) is a matter of deeming certain things to be true. And we do this by understanding the claims, assessing their basis and implications, and so becoming convinced that they accurately and fittingly represent the matters to which they pertain.

As such, Christians should never “simply believe” something.

This confuses a claim to truth with its proof, or to confuse truth claims and truth value. Thus I do not believe someone is innocent simply because they claim it, but because the weight of the evidence, rightly interpreted, offers good reason to believe it.

Believing in this second, negative sense amounts to credulity: simply believing what I have been told (and doing so, likely, because I have been taught to do so). In my experience, many evangelical Christians have been raised this way. They have been taught not simply what to believe, but that “belief” is the vehicle by which they acquire their identity, rather than being what holds that identity together.

Let me be blunt: whatever it may be, credulity is not Christian.

Instead, my view is that truly Christian belief results from participatory understanding and observational engagement.

So such belief is the result of the engagement of my whole person with the twin tasks of understanding / pursuing full humanness and committing oneself to truth in all its manifestations. It is a process requiring rigor2, attention, and commitment to one’s own life.

And it can result in peace and joy. Peace through the satisfaction of adopting a lifestyle where one is rightly oriented toward truth, a dedication to honesty with oneself. Joy through the increased possibilities of loving myself and other more rightly as I rightly relate to God, who knows be best and loves me most.

Theory over practice? Part III

Last post I gave the example of a Christian parent who is sorting out a difficulty for her child. The child’s friend is saying that the earth was not created in six days but evolved over 4 billion years. The children have discussed this a few times and looked at some science books. Her child does not appear bullied but is confused and seems upset, and the other parent is willing to talk about it.

I argued that how Christians engage on such matters depends on what their communities have modelled for them in similar situations. So when dealing with perspectives that contradict (or especially seem to threaten) the Christian faith, Christian communities typically respond not with dialogue but with dispute. I further noted that one popular model of engagement is the “boundary-focused” approach.

Expressed positively, being boundary-focused means categorizing neighbours and newcomers to the community as either insiders or outsiders in order best to interact with them and, if necessary, protect the community from them. Being boundary-focused is one way to manage the competing needs of growing your membership while preserving your values and identity.

So how does this apply to our example?

Well, in situations involving everyday problems my interest is coming to an effective solution, so long as it appears both ethical and feasible. I will know that the solution is effective if it resolves the issue in a fitting manner (in this example, a mended friendship or curtailed bullying), and if all parties agree to carry it out (it is feasible) and are respected in the process (it is ethical).

But in particularly “Christian” situations—situations bearing on or challenging my faith, whether tacitly or openly—my goal is not longer effectiveness but truth. Also, because Christians will now perceive God to be more directly involved this will reconfigure the ethical considerations (for God must certainly be respected too) and the notion of feasibility (both because “with God all things are possible” and because “the world will hate us for the sake of Christ”).

In other words, when Christians perceive God to be more directly to involved this changes the “rules of engagement.”  As a Christian in such contexts I see myself as responsible for affirming the truth (and so assuring that God is respected) and realizing that doing so has costs (recognizing that non-Christians will likely disagree and may feel hostility toward me because of my views). More pointedly, these new rules of engagement only become intensified where my church upbringing has trained me to confront disagreement or disbelief in Christianity with dispute (rather than dialogue).

So how does this play out?

Well, both my personal experience and my academic research show that, when confronted with a situation where they perceive their faith to be threatened (or sometimes even questioned) Christians experience tension. The tension is caused by two conflicting motivations.

On the one hand, as I noted last post, there is a desire to approach the matter just like other situations: discussing the matter so that both parties understand each other and thereby coming to a solution to which they all agree and by which they all feel respected. On the other hand, there is a sense that one’s Christian duty is to prioritize and protect the truth of Christianity and one’s own Christian identity, and that adopting / enforcing a boundary-focused stance is the best way to do this.

Thus because commitment to God is the primary goal for Christians, so they redefine the elements of a good solution (effectiveness, ethics, and feasibility) accordingly.

“Effectiveness” becomes that which preserves or promotes God’s truth, “ethics” means prioritizing what best respects / serves God, and “feasibility” is that which would be most broadly endorsed by their Christian community, with considerations for all other parties being secondary.

The effect?

The other party is marginalized. In a debate, one does not seek to learn from the other side but to defeat them. Where God’s interests are essential (and surely God’s interests must be the most important) then all other interests are at best optional. Where ethics concern preserving or promoting God’s position or Christian views, other views are simply unimportant. And where feasibility is what the church community supports, being swayed by the responses of the other party appears irrational and perhaps even dangerous.

So Christians have switched from engaging in a dialogue that seeks consensus and values people to performing a monologue-like debate that seeks to defeat the other party’s perspective, deprioritizes their worth, and anticipates their unwillingness to participate in our solutions.  And they have done so for the sake of truth, the sake of respecting God, and the sake of preserving the identity and integrity of their communities.

My view on this?

Simply put: too much ‘truth’, too little love (for others, oneself, and God).  And all based on a rather questionable understanding of ‘truth’ at that.  Next post draws on our previous discussion of scepticism and suspicion and prepares the way for re-situating theory and practice.

Reading the Bible, reading myself

In a recent discussion someone raised the idea that personal experiences of God should not be treated with skepticism:

“When someone sees something beautiful in their life and recognizes it as the hand of God and through that experience moves an inch closer to intimacy with Him, woe is the man (or woman) who answers them with skepticism! There is a deeply in-grained skeptical attitude within the hearts of many of those who claim the name of God. Take the example about the eagle flying and someone seeing that as something God has given them as a demonstration of His love and attention, no one should take that from them. Did God put the eagle there in the first place? Maybe. Maybe not. But if He didn’t, He turned that person’s attention to the eagle and turned their thoughts to Him. And if that person relates this story to another person and they respond with a scoffing attitude, what they are in essence saying to that person is….’there is no way that God would go out of His way to do that for you…you really aren’t that important.’ ”

I very much agree with you that God desires good things for each person. More specifically, I believe that God does so such that the content of this goodness and the manner in which it is manifested or disseminated is situated within the broader context of furthering God’s kingdom. Thus in my view a Christian perspective contains a dual context for defining such important benefits as goodness, care, and love. On the one hand, goodness is only truly good if it is situated within the greater project of realizing God’s kingdom. On the other hand, goodness is only perceivable as good—it is only really “for me”—if it manifests and impacts me as beneficial, rejuvenating, etc.

This of course raises the matter of interpretation, but more broadly than we normally think. Typically we think of interpreting texts and, for many Christians, good interpretation is what permits us to understand the Bible correctly. I agree. However, another type of interpretation is also at play, though typically those interpreting in this way are unaware of doing so and unskilled in its use.

Specifically, all of us are engaged all the time in interpreting our own experiences. The vast majority of us do so without reflection or consideration, and certainly without special “training” (indeed most events require no great consideration or training to understand).  Now coming back to this comment: Christians explain God, to other Christians and to non-Christians, both through how they read (or interpret) the Bible and how the understand (or interpret) events in their lives that they believe have some bearing on God, such as having some form of encounter with God).

Now to some people the notion that we interpret the Bible (instead of simply “reading what’s there”) may seem surprising.  More so, to some it means that human beings are “in charge” of determining who God is, which can cause distress. For if God’s love (or perhaps worse, truth!) is a matter of my interpretation or that of others, then how can we be certain that we’re not misrepresenting God or characterizing God in any number of potentially conflicting —and even harmful—ways?  As such, Christians not only appeal to a source of information about God (the Bible) but many Christians also favour particular approaches to biblical interpretations, reading techniques such as proper exegetical method, historical and literary awareness, etc.

In other words, most Christians most of the time would not be content to “make of the Bible” whatever we pleased. Yet accepting experientially-based claims about God as authoritative without examining their interpretation is precisely what we would be doing if we agree that we cannot (indeed, must not) doubt the validity another person’s perspective about how God acted / communicated / was present in that person’s life in some special way.

A bit of a problem, I think. Yet the matter doesn’t end here. For considerations of accuracy and truthfulness in interpreting experiences have further similarities with interpreting Bible readings.

Interpretation needs not only to be viewed more broadly (as encompassing the interpretation of experience) but it also needs to be understood as a “skill,” which means that the individual’s skill as an interpreter of themselves is now also at issue.  In other words, if it’s reasonable to prefer N. T. Wright’s reading of a given biblical passage because I have good reason to think N. T. Wright is a more skillful interpreter of the Bible than another exegete, why is it not also reasonable to prefer my (or yours or John’s) interpretation of an event because I think I am (or you are or he is) a better interpreter of experience than another person?  Must it be the case that someone is always the best interpreter of their own experience?  I think not. 1

Stated differently—and I think this is crucial—I would characterize Christians as truth-seekers whose seeking is to be oriented by and toward loving God entirely, love themselves rightly, and love their fellows likewise. From this context Christians are called to act in in the service of both love (of God, myself and others) and truth (biblical and personal), and so are OBLIGED to engage not only with someone’s claims about God based on their interpretation of John’s gospel but also claims about God based on her / his interpretation of their experiences.

And when we do so, we not only prevent certain problems but acquire certain benefits. A willingness to investigate and question may keep us from falling prey to the common, North American orientation that Jesus died “for me,” to “save me from my sins.”  It would do so by promoting deeper engagement with the biblical text that may well lead us to seeking fuller explanations of who Jesus is (and so move us toward broader, more covenantal presentations of the gospel, such as N. T. Wright proposes).  I wager that this joint orientation toward love and truth also creates stronger and more vibrant communities, communities that love and listen while not losing the ability to speak (and where necessary, critique).

Truths about Truth: being pragmatic, subjective, and relative

 

Christians are quite concerned about truth.

For example, Os Guiness argues that Christian truth is opposed to pragmatism, subjectivism, and relativism.  Yet as I discussed last week, we must be careful to distinguish between pragmatism and being pragmatic; between subjectivism and being subjective; between relativism and being relative.

Why?

The issue is that while certain ideologies are destructive their underlying orientations may be helpful (and even necessary).  For example, the ‘ism’ in pragmatism specifies an ideology—it means that a pragmatic orientation is not simply accepted but is one’s “guiding principle.”  So when someone embraces pragmatism ‘functionality‘ becomes more important to that person than anything, even truthfulness.

Now I agree that truthfulness should be a guiding principle for everyone, Christian or not.1  But we must be very careful not to confuse destructive ideologies with proper, human orientations, especially when such orientations are necessary to assessing the Bible’s truth claims correctly (orientations such as being pragmatic, subjective, and relative).  Why necessary?

Here’s why: Christianity concerns not simply intellectual assent but relational content.

In other words, Christianity is not only thinking rightly about God but being rightly disposed to God, and these two things are reciprocal.  So to be in right relationship with God I must know some true things about God (i.e., that this God alone is God, that the Bible especially reveals this God, that I communicate with God by prayer, etc.).  Yet I can only understand and believe the Bible’s relational claims about God (i.e., that God knows me and loves me) through personal experience.

Further, while right disposition begins with right understanding, their reciprocal relation means that right disposition also creates right belief and understanding!  So Christians generally understand that one cannot rightly relate to God if this God is conceived of (and so is pursued) as Allah, the Hindu Gods, etc.  Yet they often misunderstand that the Bible’s undeniably personal and relational claims (i.e., that God knows me better than I know myself and loves more deeply than I love myself) can only be validated through personal experience.

And validating these relational truth claims—recognizing their truth value—requires being pragmatic, relativistic, and subjective.

This is so because these truth claims are both intellectual and relational, in keeping with a) my human nature as situated and finite and b) God’s nature, who is love, and so seeks to be in relationship with me.  Intellectually, I assess any truth claim from my subjective viewpoint and relative to my finite experience.  Yet relationally I am always seeking my own good (I’m pragmatic because it matters to me how things turn out in my own life), and so claims about being known and loved must turn out to be just that!2

Now having personal experience of God does not necessitate that everyone experiences God in dramatic and undeniable ways.  But my hunch is that it does mean that within current communities of Christians there will be personal experiences of relating with God that validate the truth claim that “God knows and loves us” in deep—and deeply healing and satisfying—ways.

What do I mean?

By “current communities” I mean that it is not enough to read how God delivered Israel, supported David, or even how Jesus healed and fed many.  I believe these accounts.  However, my argument is that the Bible’s claims that God is real and good are validated by experiencing God delivering, restoring and healing now, in the lives of real people.  Literally.3

By “personal experiences” I do not mean that God will appear to everyone similarly or with the same intensity.  Instead, Christianity endorses testimony—understandable accounts from credible people—as a valid way to know and understand God.  Through testimony I understand and am mentored in the relational component of Christian faith.  In this respect I would say that God engages with humanity personally but not individually.

Considering these questions may help:
a) If you are Christian, what relational experiences of God are important within your Christian community?
b) If you are not Christian, what relational experiences have been important in your life?

Taunts abut Truth: pragmatism, subjectivism, and relativism

 

Why should you believe in the Christian God?

“Whereas the Bible and the best thinkers of Christian history invite seekers to put their faith in God because the message conveying that invitation is true, countless Christians today believe for various other reasons.  For instance they believe faith is true ‘because it works’ (pragmatism), because they ‘feel it is true in their experience’ (subjectivism), because they sincerely believe it is ‘true for them’ (relativism), and so on.”1

Os Guiness penned this in his Time for Truth.  But if Dr. Guiness believes that Christian truth is contrary to what he calls pragmatism, subjectivism and relativism, what happens if we re-frame his sentence to reflect that?  If we do, it would look like this:

“Countless Christians today believe . . . faith is true ‘because it doesn’t work’, because they ‘do not feel it is true in their experience’, and because they sincerely do not believe it is ‘true for them’.” (Emphasis added).

Does this make Christianity sound truthful?

Or even vaguely appealing?

I hope not.

Instead, this reframing detaches it from human experience and makes it sound completely false and untrue.  So what’s going on?  If it is reasonable (and true!) that Christian truth is unrelated to pragmatism, subjectivism or relativism, then why does it sound so wrong when we plainly express it that way?

Let me suggest two reasons.

First, we need to distinguish between pragmatism and ‘being pragmatic’, where pragmatism indicates an ideology versus a ‘pragmatic’ orientation or interest.  So where being pragmatic means that it’s important that things function as they should, adopting pragmatism means that “functionality” is your guiding principal (over and above, say, truthfulness).2

So is being pragmatic (instead of embracing pragmatism) compatible with believing Christianity to be true?  I think so.  And more than that, it’s the same with being subjective and relative.  Here’s why:

As human beings we should value our own lives (we naturally care how things “work out”—we are pragmatic).  We are indeed finite (we see things from our limited, subjective viewpoint).  We understand contextually (we make sense of things relative to our background and experiences).

As I’ve argued before, these characteristics are not limitations but are the very basis for knowing and experiencing anything at all.  But valuing our existence, embracing our finitude, and acknowledging that human understanding is contextual (i.e., being pragmatic, subjective, and relative) are also the necessary ingredients for developing and maintaining a thriving relationship with God!

Second, Os Guiness also writes that “the Christian faith is not true because it works; it works because it is true.”3  Yet considering what we have discussed above I believe that this is incorrect.  Or rather, insufficient.  In other words, not only do people experience that Christianity “works,” I believe that Christianity must work in order for belief to be credible.

I would put it like this:

“Christianity is true because it works (as truth-for-me), and it works because it is true (as ultimate Truth).”

Now I maintain that it works (for me or anyone) because it is true (and ultimately so), but in order for me to perceive it as true it must—on some real and tangible level—work for me.  It is the alignment of my fullest / best-reasoned truth (call it ‘truth-for-me’) and the Bible’s truth claims (as ultimate Truth) that convinces me of the truth value of these truth claims.

Back to pragmatics, relativity, and subjectivity.

Aligning Truth and truth-for-me is necessary because humans are finite: bereft of unmediated access to God’s ultimate truth we instead evaluate such truth claims from our subjective, relative position.  Yet valuing my life and how things ‘work out’ for me—being pragmatic—means that it is also necessary for me to substantiate the claim that this God is good and that God’s love for me is real (and not fictional or abusive).

Thus being subjective, relative, and pragmatic are not obstacles to embracing Christian truth but are our very means of doing so.  Next week I examine how.

Deception in certainty / deliverance in stories

 

Have you ever read a novel or biography and found in it something that you had never been able to articulate, or were even unaware of, but which deeply expresses who you are?

Good stories—fictional and historical—capture the most essential aspects of human existence.  They not only convey our most intimate hopes and fears, but they help form who we are and want to become.  Key to making stories “work” is the imagination.

Yet many people see imagination as the enemy of truth.  Truth is real, imagination is not.  Truth is concrete and certain (and so valuable); the imaginary is fanciful and potentially misleading (and so not valuable, or perhaps even dangerous).

Thus the view that “facts are good but stories are bad.”  Or at best, facts and stories are very different creatures.  And particularly when it comes to beliefs, facts give you what you need to know.  Stories are something extra for those who like or want them—like bonus material on a rental movie.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  (Pardon the pun).  Let’s take a closer look.

Interestingly, stories have led us back to knowledge.  And in an earlier post I noted how people believe that they can “access” the Bible’s truth (or Truth) absolutely so as to arrive at certain knowledge: to be without doubt.

Yet as it is impossible simply to “read what is in the Bible” instead of needing to interpret it (whether we are conscious of doing so or not), the upshot is that human beings cannot have certainty.  About anything.  Through any means.  Only God has certainty; humans have varying degrees of probability.

But let’s look deeper.

People believe in “absolute access” in order to arrive at certain knowledge.  This, then, is a belief.  Why do we hold it?  The answer is there: in order to arrive at certain knowledge.  So why is certainty important?  Two reasons present themselves.

First, certainty brings security.  We can live with other viewpoints without feeling threatened by them.  Second, certainty brings rest.  We can be at ease from nagging questions and can instead devote our energies to the truth, where they are best spent.

Interestingly, the enemy is again relativism.  Relativism implies that other views are just as valid as our own, so we must constantly be maintaining their validity.  To circumvent this, some Christians attempt to fortify their knowledge claims: by asserting that what they know is certain—even unassailable—they can feel secure and at ease.

When acquired in the right way and held for the right reasons, security and rest are good things.

As we’ve discussed, though, they cannot be acquired through certainty: certainty is a commodity that humans simply cannot trade in.  But neither can they be held out of pathology.  Because desiring such absolute security is indeed pathological: we are here again faced with a desire to exceed the bounds of what it is to be human and become like God.

It is pathological, too, in that this desire stems from fear and unmet needs.  The fear of wrong beliefs is really the fear of losing our worldview and our very self-understanding (and thus identity).  Further, if a loving God is not real this threatens one’s need to be loved and valued.

So what about stories?

I believe that stories—fictional and historical—deliver us from these excessive (and destructive) perspectives.  Where a desire for absolute security demands certainty, stories invite dialogue with numerous perspectives through our imagination.  And while diversity implies relativism (and doubt), relativism also includes the possibility that matters may be “more” than we had first presumed.

Ironically, it is through opening us to the possible and the essential that stories keep us from falling under the tyranny of the factual and the real.