Why I am a Christian: Starting from the whole.

I’ve been very quiet these last few months. It’s because I have been trying to understand how I’m to approach the title’s question. Why do I believe in Jesus Christ? It’s not a new question to me. Through the years I’ve become accustomed to periods of intense doubt and self-reflection.

But reflections are complete images. They are somehow hard to tease apart into structured arguments. Every smaller part of the whole is a place to start, with its own problems and defenses. In the last week or so I’ve gotten to a point where I think I have a place to start.

The place is this: I hypothesise the existence of God because, in the words of Allister McGrath, “It is a hypothesis, but it is one that resonates with everything I know to be true.”

It’s an assertion that encompasses all my life. And this is what I have found in the last couple of months: We almost never start from first priciples and work our way up. We believe large statements, which are then made more sophisticated as we delve into them. The better we understand the whole, the better we can understand the part, and vice versa. Our beliefs whirl in this circle, becoming stronger or weaker as we explore their implications.

So I have tried and found it impossible to build this from its parts. I will rather start from the whole and work inwards.

I believe in Truth and Love. I believe in Beauty, Goodness, Evil and Freedom. These are not things I have reasoned my way to. They seem to be carved into my bones. I can build rational frameworks within which they function and are explained, but that is not how I came to believe in them. I believe in Evil, because I know it when I see it.

I have also followed my atheist leanings to what I believe is their logical conclusion: Determinism and Nihilism tempered by a kind of selfish altruism. Within this structure there is no place for the things I now believe in my deepest core.

Christianity makes sense of the world to me. Its portrayal of humanity is the closest to what I see every day around me. Its philosophy fits with reality as I perceive it. I believe it offers the most reasonable answers to the ills of the world. And most importantly, it has Jesus – the most influential person in all of history.

This strange man so confounded all the expecation that first century Jews had about the coming messiah, that one would be hard pressed to think up a stranger saviour for those people. And yet, they ended up believing in him with a fervour that cost many their lives. The teachings coming from this man who claimed divinity were often willfully nebulous and seemingly obtuse. He championed the powerless and stood up those who abused the might they had. And just to prove that he really was special, he died.

The land around Jerusalem is littered with the corpses of upstart messiahs. They had conformed to the cultural beliefs of what the savior of the world should do. They had challenged the Roman Empire; swept up their followers with mighty speeches and died ignominiously, leaving their movements to fizzle out.

So why did this crazy guy succeed? The man who confused and angered everyone with his speeches; who called for nonviolent protest; who seemed to do everything wrong when it came to creating a revolution?

In his death, Jesus embodied all that he taught. He went to his execution with humility, discouraging violence, and showing love even to those dividing his clothes among themselves. He died a pathetic death: a beaten, naked wretch. Mocked, deserted, on the bleeding edge of powerlessness.

And then he rose again. Or, at least, that’s what we’re told. The accounts and actions of the apostles at least tell us that they really believed it. The fact that his movement didn’t fizzle like so many others tells its own story.

Yes, Jesus is the greatest story ever told. And it might just be true. The naturalistic explanations (that I have heard) for the historical data are laughably improbable. Almost nothing about the story of Jesus would suggest that he was invented by a couple of apostles to start a religion. Their own lives and deaths spoke of their faith in the risen Christ.

Jesus is the center around which all arguments for belief in Christianity turn, and rightly so. He is exceptional. He forces a reinterpretation of all that had come before and after him.

I want to paraphrase C.S. Lewis when I say that I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not because I see it, but because, by it, I see everything.

If the Word ever became man, would you expect anything less?

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8 thoughts on “Why I am a Christian: Starting from the whole.

  1. Great big heavy dose of sentimentalism right there. Hits me right in the feely-place. Yet, I personally don’t get the whole ‘intuition’ thing. I find it hard to believe things on intuition. Please explain?

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    • Hello.

      Thanks for reading. I’m going to try engage your question as I understand it, so please let me know if I miss the point. 🙂

      Believing on intuition. I think we begin believing quite a lot based on intuition and then build intellectual structures around these beliefs. This is what I see in many of my own beliefs. This is what I’ve gleaned from conversations with others about belief. Now, these structures may invalidate the intuited beliefs, and the only responsible thing to do then is to re-evaluate your intuition and maybe even reject it (the source of our intuitions can be cultural artefacts, after all).

      This in no way invalidates the existence of beliefs that we arrive at by purely rational routes. I believe we have both intuited and assimilated beliefs.

      Now, as pertains to the piece in question: I was talking about where I came upon the belief in the inherent value of Truth, Beauty, and Good. Further defence of the specific reasons for still accepting the results of my intuition would have made the post prohibitively long and rambling. Also- In my experience, arguments about things like the existence of goodness usually end up back at our intuited beliefs on the subject. It’s one of those thorny issues that seems to boil down to “either you see it or you don’t.” 🙂

      About sentimentalism: Though I am not immune to it from time to time, I actually fail to see where I was overly sentimental here. I was trying to sketch a smattering of my reasons for believing in the truth of the Jesus story without devolving into dry philosophical prose. But maybe I was unsuccessful, so feel free to further clarify the issues you have with the piece.

      Thanks for taking the time to engage with the piece.
      PG de Jonge

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    • There is a danger in discounting emotion (or “sentimentalism”) when looking at reasons for belief. Of course, emotional manipulation is common, but so too fallacious logic as a means of manipulating an audience who isn’t educated in critical thinking. I would expect Christianity, if it were true, to offer both dry, dispassionate, analytic reasons, as well as ones reflecting a wider spectrum of human experience. PG holds that tension well in this piece.

      Concerning intuition, the idea of a purely rationalistic epistemology has been abandoned long ago, even by analytic philosophers. Aesthetics, for example, is recognised as a legitimate criterion for judging truth. The intellectual and long-time Mensa chairman Buckminster Fuller once said, “when I solve a problem, I never think about beauty. But if the solution isn’t beautiful, I know that it is wrong.”

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  2. Very well written piece, well done. My biggest reaction is to this statement: ‘ I hypothesise the existence of God because, in the words of Allister McGrath, “It is a hypothesis, but it is one that resonates with everything I know to be true.”’ My problem with this kind of ‘resonance’ or intuition or whatever one may call it, is that it invalidates all beliefs. Someone might just as easily have said “I hypothesise the existence of Allah because… [it] resonates with everything I know to be true.” It is as easy for someone to say the same about Krishna or Buddha or whoever.

    If your personal beliefs validate Jesus, and another’s Allah, and so on, then they must all be equally real and valid. The problem is that many of the gods’ holy words contradict this intuition, and that in order to hold the scriptures to be true means not being able to rely on personal resonance or intuition.

    Another point that leads off from this is the moral dilemma that arises from atheism which is “Determinism and Nihilism tempered by a kind of selfish altruism”. This can be true of atheism, but just as easily of any other religion and worldview. Most religions offer a type of determinism through the will of god or predestination, and most have a type of selfish altruism, if one considers the hypocritical self-indulgence coupled with charity practiced by catholic and protestant churches as well as by muslims and others. Atheism does not need to lead to amorality or the invalidation of beauty, goodness and truth, just as those things do not presuppose the existence of a god.

    Going on to the question of false messiahs, and then Jesus being the real one because people died in his name. There are many false prophets in every religion, in every possible form and guise. Some are better than others and are remembered and revered while the rest fall away. The same is true for world leaders, thinkers, and even musicians. Just like Hitler and Mao managed to rally people behind them, where many others failed, and just like Bob Dylan and John Lenon will never be forgotten in western pop, people like Jesus, Buddha and Muhammed are remembered and have people who are willing to die for their teachings, while other prophets are forgotten.

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    • Hmm. Interesting take on it.

      – I don’t think we have any other way to speak about our beliefs outside of resonance. If you believe anything, it should be compatible with the world around you. We only have access to the world as we see it, so resonance refers to a general internal consistency of worldview.

      Now, there are definitely internally inconsistent worldviews and many people hold beliefs that clash with other beliefs that they supposedly espouse, so the point of the statement to me is that the hypothesis resonates with ALL I know to be true. This is in itself not a takedown proof, since we have not yet delved into what I actually hold to be true, but it wasn’t exactly intended to be. I stated my aim as trying to go from the overarching beliefs to the things the undergird them. So I completely understand you reticence to take it as a proof for the existence of any kind of God (or non-God). I would also not be at all convinced at that.
      I merely needed a point from which to start.

      This brings us to another point, which is how we evaluate the relative merit of statements of belief (we take it for granted here that they resonate at some level with supporting beliefs). When we need to decide what to believe (when it is scientifically unprovable), the dialogue should be about the validity of the supporting beliefs. Is my cumulative case for belief strong enough to support the God hypothesis? And that’s the aim of this series of posts, to think through my reasons for believing what I do and relating them in some accessible way.

      So as a tl;dr, it could be true for any belief, which is why we need to look at the truth statements the large body of beliefs resonate with. (An aside: I just love where this is taking me. You prod me into building a theoretical meta-structure within which worldviews functions, which is an exciting prospect.)

      – On to your second point and my statement about atheism.
      My statement referred to the logical conclusion of atheism. I believe that consistent atheism has no choice but to end up at that point. Now, please be aware that I don’t believe that most atheists would ever actually espouse that worldview. Atheism usually does not lead to amorality, but I think that it should if it is to be internally consistent. That most atheists claim some objective morality I see as inconsistency within their worldview. That’s where my mind took me in my own dabblings with atheism. I might be wrong, but that’s a completely new can of worms. This is purely a statement of what I think is true without any corroboration. I could probably do a post about it.

      Now, to the reverse that was offered: While I believe that it’s the logical conclusion for consistent atheists, I don’t think it follows logically from theism. When the sensible man (legal terms make you sound smarter :P) takes the basic tenets of, say Christianity, I believe that he would not reach the conclusions of determinism, nihilism and selfish altruism (though, to be fair, we may not be talking about the same things when we use those terms). The very fact that you call those things within the church hypocritical proves that it is not internally consistent with the worldview.

      That’s the intent of the statement: I think if you follow atheism’s trail of crumbs rigorously enough, you’ll end with a world devoid of meaning and all the interesting things it entails. If you do the same from the basic tenets of mere Christianity (Using C.S. Lewis’ definition here), you won’t end up there. Those who do are not playing by their own rules.

      – The point about dying for Jesus. It is a very strange man who, when confronted with a flagrant lie he concocted, would die rather than renounce it. So dying for their faith merely shows that the apostles were either raving lunatics, every last one of them, or that they actually believed that Jesus had risen.
      Similar movements die when you remove the leader. I’m talking about movements where the person at the head is very much the point of the movement. This was true of Christianity and the myriad dead messiahs around Jerusalem in the first century. Ideological movements divorced from the originator (Think Communism, Buddhism) often can continue, since they are built on truth claims wholly apart from who said it (Though you’ll notice that Buddhism has kinda dodged that one with reincarnation and Boddhisatvas and the like).

      For Christianity to stay alive and grow, the people who saw Jesus die would have to believe that what He said about Himself was true. The greatest vindication for his claim to Godhood would be if He conquered death, which his followers truly believed.

      Islam, for instance, was already moving and conquering while Mohamed was still alive. also- he only claimed to be a prophet, so the message is once again divorced from his person in a way that couldn’t be true for Jesus. If Jesus didn’t rise, then his self-conception is not vindicated and his ideas were probably those of a madman (similar to the guy on the corner with the cardboard sign saying the end is nigh). Around his resurrection everything turns.

      So I think it is a legitimate starting point for an historical argument that Jesus was actually God. The nature of Christianity, coupled with cultural beliefs at the time, coupled with the political and social context makes it a really odd thing to have even survived at all, let along become a world religion.

      I’m going to stop now. Replies should probably never be longer than the OP.

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  3. What follows is despicably long and maybe not so eloquent, so noone needs to feel compelled to read it (I didn’t even conclude my thoughts because I was so over it). But it does essentially sum up what I believe, and is my exit from this conversation (I am not inexhaustibly fond of debating belief, but have ironically done it very often). It comes down to 1. I try to base my beliefs on observable things that all humans can agree on (an example being -humans-) and 2. I believe that because we are incredibly complex organisms we use a variety of ways to cope with our existence, and these are what religions are, and this explains why contradictory beliefs can have the same practical results for different people.

    I feel that, in order to approach an issue like morality, one needs to start from a point that most people can agree on, regardless of their beliefs. For me this point would be Descarte’s clichéd “cogito ergo sum”. Let us put aside questions of whether reality is all an illusion, or we are someone else’s dream, or any such fun but impractical musings. We are humans, and we are alive.

    We have various and complex urges and we are compelled to fulfil them. I think that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs gives a sufficient summary of the type of needs that I am referring to. As solitary Homo Sapiens we are only just able to meet the most basic needs that we feel. The more we cooperate, the more effectively we can meet a greater number of needs. This suggests to me, that for all humans, irrespective of their beliefs, community and cooperation results in a greater net need fulfilment (read happiness). By this same measure, things that threaten community and cause separation should be eliminated.

    I feel from the incredibly simple equation of community=best, all human morality can be derived. Do unto others, be charitable, love thy neighbour, work hard, sharing is caring, lay down his life for his friends, etc. all stem from this basic departure point. Similarly rape and theft and murder and corruption are all outlawed and condemned by this equation, since they all threaten the happiness of all humans. To me this is a beautiful morality, because everyone is able to see it and test it.

    Following the idea of working with what is observable and testable, I want to discuss my views on why humans have religious beliefs. All of life follows a set of genetically programmed instructions. Simpler lifeforms have simpler instructions, simpler physiognomies and simpler and more limited capabilities. With more complex bodies, minds and purposes come more complex capabilities, but also a greater incidence of malfunctions and crossed wires.

    A bacterium cannot feel pain, cannot communicate, cannot think, cannot do much other than what it does, but it does this very well. A dog can feel pain, can communicate to a certain practical degree, and we can speculate about to what degree it thinks. Dogs appear to have dreams, and if the existence of canine psychologists is any sort of proof, they can have psychological malfunctions. Dogs are adaptable, and amuse and surprise us, but they are still rather limited.

    It seems to me that humans’ genetic program contains exponentially more lines of coding than any other animal’s. This incredible complexity allows us to be very flexible, innovative, creative, etc., but with so much coding there is also much room for glitches and errors. Nevertheless, we are able to communicate very well, think abstractly and are very inquisitive. This has allowed us to achieve much more than any other animal, our devastating impact on our planet is clear evidence of this.

    However, with this complexity come many other issues. Unlike other animals (assumption), we are able to question why good things and bad things happen, what our purpose is, why we do things, and we are able in many ways to suppress our biological nature. This leads to mixed signals and something like happy/sad can be experienced in the same way as something simple like hungry/full. This leads to a situation where we constantly feel beset by terrors and confusing events, and this state of emotional turmoil literally threatens our survival. To solve this we use a great variety of coping mechanisms to bypass and suppress the coding that is part of us, but complicates survival.

    So instead of tackling a question like “why do bad things happen to good people”, and consuming many valuable hours on try to debug and solve the issue, we simply run >>faith=1 and the issue appears to disappear, allowing us to focus on survival.

    However, the more collective knowledge we gain and experiences we can share, the more coding can be corrected, and the less we need to run >>faith=1. I feel that this statement is supported by the evolution of human beliefs. More simple societies (like hunter gatherers) believe that everything has a spirit, and that almost all phenomena are caused by the interplays between these spirits. With very little information to explain things like life, death, disaster and disease, this is a useful coping mechanism. One such society will generally have one shaman to regulate and mediate between the spirits of humans and the other spirits.

    Settled societies tend to have gathered enough information and mastery over their surroundings to realise that most things do not have spirits, but that more complex and inexplicable events still need to be governed by a pantheon of gods. With the more complex society comes more exploitable surplus, and a bigger priest class emerges.

    More complex and informed societies realise that there are explanations for most things, and they do away with most of their gods, but still need to keep at least one to rule over the final frontier of arcane phenomena and wisdom. This one god also mirrors and justifies the one ruler, and under this system the largest priest class can exist.

    In our current situation, we feel that most things directly linked to our survival (per Maslow) have been explained, and to follow this atheism is more prevalent than ever. This in no way means that our world at present is better than in the past, but it does show that with more knowledge the “override all” coping mechanism becomes less and less prevalent. Our responsibility now is to keep searching for more and more truth and knowledge and stay focussed on society=good, instead of filling up the void with thousands of little coping vices.

    To illustrate some contemporary coping mechanisms in action, I have postulated a situation:

    A Christian man is confronted by an armed robber, and told to hand over all his cash, or lose his life. He is struck by terror, but being a man of great faith his first reaction is to cry out to Jesus in his heart. He is immediately filled with supernatural calm, and against his logical judgement he tells the robber that the Lord is protecting him, and that he will not be threatened. The robber loses his nerve and runs off. The man praises God and his faith is reinforced.

    A Zulu man is confronted by an armed robber, and told to hand over all his cash, or lose his life. He is struck by terror, but he remembers the band of leopard skin that is tied around his upper arm, which contains special medicine from the Sangoma which makes the Amadlozi give him superhuman strength. Against his logical judgement, and quicker than normally possible, he grabs the gun from the robber’s hand and tells him to voetsek. The robber loses his nerve and runs off. The man is amazed at the power of the muthi and resolves to visit the sangoma for help with his job.

    A Zen Buddhist man is confronted by an armed robber, and told to hand over all his cash, or lose his life. He is struck by terror, but reflexively accesses his Quiet Mind which he visits during meditation every morning. He is immediately filled with supernatural calm, and against his logical judgement he stares dead into the robber’s eyes, and shakes his head. The robber loses his nerve and runs off. The man once again sees the power of meditation.

    This scenario, and any variety of others, could be reimagined with examples of how totally different beliefs will lead to same result. The constant factor will be that some sort of faith or belief or thought system is accessed by the stressed mind and used to resolve a problem. This suggests to me that instead of every person’s resonance or faith or whatever being true at the same time (because as I have already said, many of these belief systems don’t allow for the simultaneous existence of the others), that all of these systems are different manifestations of the same ability of the human mind to bypass standard biological programs.

    Similar things are true when good fortune is pinned on the provenance of a god, or fate, or luck, and when bad fortune is tempered by the belief that it was meant to be, that it is god’s will, and is better off that way. Many social scientists, economists, biologists, comedians, politicians, etc. have demonstrated how the human mind can be tricked into selectively gathering and storing information and how information can be skewed through a multitude of different biases. Even if the Christian, the Zulu and the Buddhist were all confronted at the same time, and the robber fled, each would attribute the good fortune of all three to his specific faith.

    In this sense religions etc. are very useful, and many great things have been achieved because of what they have enabled and persuaded people to do, and many people’s daily existence is prolonged because of their specific beliefs. My problem is that these types of belief systems only offer symptomatic relief, but not actual relief. Another problem is that in search of more of whatever comfort or strength the belief system has to offer, its dogma can pursued to the point where it hurts the faithful person themselves, as well as other people.

    An atheist who was confronted by an armed robber would probably think of the fact that he only has one life to live, and that it’s not worth losing it over some cash, and would have obeyed the thief. However, because he has now been made acutely aware of his vulnerability he will take active steps to decrease the likelihood of a similar situation, instead of believing that his faith will protect him every time. He seeks to resolve the cause of the problem, and not just to cope with it.

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    • Then this will probably be my last entry into this debate as well. I will try to actually make a shorter post this time.

      To start with your assertions:
      1- Base beliefs on what can be observed and agreed on.
      Firstly: Humans, while observable, yield very little hard data that can be agreed upon. Either way, the method we use to make our observations as objective as possible is science. In this debate, science is problematic, since it hasn’t managed to prove or disprove the existence of God so far (and possibly never will).
      Secondly: As it relates to morality, science is useful only as a tool to further a set morality. It considers what is, not what ought to be.

      2- Complex organisms with myriad coping mechanisms.
      I concede both that we are complex and use mechanisms to cope with reality. That religion is one of these, I don’t agree with. It shows an underlying assumption that the claims made by the religion are untrue, because, if true, it could still help you cope with life. Giving AN explanation that fits does not make it THE explanation (See what I wrote here: https://pgdejonge.wordpress.com/2013/08/20/staring-at-glasses-seeing-both-sides/).
      Your arguments RE morality already stand on moral assumptions. This is the problem with naturalistic morality. You say community=best because of socio-evolutionary reasons, for instance. If we have dodged our socio-evolution by letting severely handicapped babies live, why would it be wrong to dodge it in any other instance, such as murder? I have walked this spiral staircase down many times and always end up at some assumption that humans are valuable, which is nothing more than an assumption.
      Which brings us to the basis: any naturalistic explanation falls into the trap of assuming certain things to be right or wrong (I agree with those most of the time). But you can’t base an objective morality on that. Some people think you should love your neighbour, others that you should eat him. Only a transcendent law would make either Right or Wrong and, therefore, objectively binding.

      I like your argument about how >>faith=1 increases survivability. It could even be true, though, without saying anything about the existence of God.

      On the origins of religion: According to G.K. Chesterton, Primitive societies usually start by believing that everything is suffused with one spirit (a sort of monotheism). Polytheism usually only follows later. But this is really shaky ground, since our knowledge of any of the proto-religions come through many years and intermediaries. In the end, it’s mostly speculation which came first, leaving it a moot point in an argument about God’s existence.

      Your examples are, unfortunately, extremely simplistic, with a very low view of Christianity (Even though many Christians espouse this form of belief). It is a Christianity that is out of touch with reality and even much that is in the Bible. That only the Atheist would take actions to prevent future encounters is laughable.
      And that is part of the reason why I believe in Christianity. It doesn’t shy away from the complexity of life. It helps us make sense of everything within a sound framework. It doesn’t ask us to stop engaging intelligently with the world. Indeed, I believe it actually encourages looking for answers.

      It is not an opiate, it is a lens that helps correct our vision.

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  4. Pingback: Why I Am A Christian 2: The Person of Jesus | Chasing the Light

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