Why I am a Christian 3: Evil

It is difficult finding words for ideas. I think most people know this on some level. Have you ever experienced something so intense and profound that you could find no words to convey what was shivering in your core? It happens to me. Often.

I think it’s why we consume art on such an enormous scale. It is why we flock headlong to the telling of stories, saying: “Yes, that’s it. HE got it. That storyteller understands.”

The most foundational aspects of our lives defy easy categorisation and explanation. We are forced to acknowledge this when we stand speechless in the presence of things like birth, death, love, courage, and evil.

In some of my most intense times of doubt I have returned to my experience of darkness and found God waiting there. There may be many refutations that can be levelled at the experience of evil, but irrefutability was never the point of these posts. It is an exploration of the multiplicity of reasons that I feel drawn to Christianity as the greatest explanation of reality. I have spent some time trying to place the experience of evil in the foundations of my faith and I think I may have found part of the answer.

Evil is a lens. It is one of the most basic human experiences, and it forces a response in a way that almost nothing else does. I think that’s one reason why we all shy away from it. There is something in us that rebels against the worst of humanity, calling us to action: even against our wills.

Which is where I often find God. Evil, and our reaction to it, affirms the existence of true goodness in the wrong that goes against it. You could point to my upbringing as the source of my discomfort and I would concede that you might be right. There are no ironclad philosophies (I have written about this previously).
Evil is something that I cannot deny. It is one of the beliefs that are engraved in my bones: so deeply imbedded that to lose it would be to be fundamentally different.

I believe in objective evil: wrongs that would be despicable even if everyone alive believed them to be moral. I also happen to be in good company about this. My best friend is agnostic, and believes this as strongly as I do. Richard Dawkins agrees, along with the pope. Our lines might lie differently, but in the face of true evil, all are united in revulsion and denunciation.

This in turn points to ultimate, objective good; something I believe to be impossible without the existence of God. For morality to be truly objective, one cannot live in a naturalistic world. The only objective law in a world without God is that might makes right. This is an argument I’ve had with a few non-believers, and it seems like it’s something you either apprehend as a logical conclusion or not (And there are many theists and atheists who have argued for both conclusions, which tends to support this observation). For me, it is obvious. The existence of the Good (God) is necessary for the existence of absolute evil.

Evil points even further. In my most despairing experience of the brokenness of humanity, I have seen glimmers of truth in Christian teachings. We can all agree that we’re broken, but I find it illuminating that we’re broken exactly like Jesus envisioned. This is obviously true because the Bible is largely an account of the specifics of our brokenness, but it is also more. It doesn’t fall into the same shortcomings that other philosophies do on the subject of human depravity. It goes deeper and further than Buddha or Marx or Hume’s characterisations. It encompasses the scope and depth of the raw badness boiling in the human heart.

It speaks to my own evil: the beast in my breast that leaves destruction in its wake whenever it stirs. C.S. Lewis famously said that all men fall short, not of the moralities of other, but of their own rules. We are all party in some small way to the brokenness of the world. In that too, I see Christ’s teachings shine.

In the end, evil is something we are intimately familiar with. Those who are able manage to subdue little bits of it every day. I believe in Christ through the very existence of evil, the experience of His teachings (and the teachings He engages) about it, and the hope that one day evil may be beaten. It is a battle I experience every day in myself. It is a war that I see waged all around me.
Sometimes, when I despair of the victory of Good, I realise again why I am a Christian. To lift a world as dark as ours from the slime we have created we will need help from someone. Someone who is clean in ways that we have never known. Someone like Jesus.

Advertisements

Why I Am A Christian 2: The Person of Jesus

This follows on Why I Am A Christian Part 1.

As a child, the stories of Jesus’ life had already become monuments early on. These engraved stones stood arranged next to my life’s road, so that I would pass them by often. Sunday school, Church, School, home: the stories were relayed to us on a regular basis.

It is an odd quirk of humanity that the more we know something, the less we think about it. In time, the monuments because moss-covered and comforting. Each time I passed, I’d afford them less and less attention. After years of hearing the stories, there was nothing more to learn.

Years later, I found my conception of Jesus to be strangely bland, so, armed with some historical context, (aided by more learned men than I) I set out to rediscover Jesus.

This man from Galilee is the point around which all of Christianity turns. He is considered the full revelation of the Law of God, the one true man, the messiah who came to release all mankind from bondage. But who do we find in the gospels?

Jesus is an enigma. He confounded everyone in his time. The religious elite of his day was shocked by his wisdom and knowledge as much as by his lifestyle. He upended ingrained tradition and theology with a smile and a story. He challenged centuries-old Jewish legalism while exhorting his followers to “sin no more.” Faced with barbed theological questions, he would answer with seemingly nebulous stories which forced the questioner to re-evaluate everything about himself. He advocated a strict moral life, while discouraging judgement. And Jesus mixed with all types.

The apostles were an odd lot. Gleaned mostly from rough folk, his band included fishermen and a hated tax-collector. The very fact that a Rabbi would choose these unworthy people as his closest followers was controversial at best in the 1st century world. It defied centuries of status quo and and showed one of the greatest facets of Jesus’ life: The underside of power.

Jesus showed an intense passion for the marginalised and oppressed. He touched lepers, flouted society’s censure of prostitutes and ate with “unclean” non-jews. He advocated some of the most brilliant forms of non-violent resistance ever devised. When talking about him, the scandalised elite called Jesus a “Glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners”.

Jesus urged the rich to care for the poor. He branded the haughty as hypocrites, and respected women in a time when misogyny wasn’t even considered as anything other than natural. At the time of the last supper, he even took on the lowliest task in a Jew’s eyes: washing the feet of his followers, entreating them to do the same.

Then there was the God-thing. Jesus lived with an unshakeable conviction that he was God incarnate. The statements he made were, to ancient Jewish ears, incontrovertible proof of this. Elders tore their clothes at the blasphemy, Theologians scoffed at the audacity, people bowed in worship, but all were sure what he implied.

Jesus is rough and dusty. He wields a whip like Indiana Jones and plays with children. He weeps often at the state of the world. He is passionate and eloquent and humble. Walter Wink said that if Jesus had never lived, we would not have been able to invent him.

I agree. If Jesus is a fiction, he’s the greatest character ever written.

P.S. Notes on historicity of accounts of Jesus’ life. This is full of links to articles which are by scholars who meticulously reference their academic sources. The articles in question are popularisations of their work, though. I would seriously encourage reading them.

There exists a problematic distance between professional historians and us laypeople. This renders debates between opposing sides of a historical figure like Jesus quite opaque to me. I have often listened to both sides being passionately defended and devolving into arguments about presupposed worldviews.

History is an inexact field. This is necessarily so. The intervening years strip us of detail, corroborating data and the writer’s worldview and identity.

In my exploration of the myriad views around the historicity of New Testament accounts, I have found that the writers’ worldviews are always reflected in the conclusions they reach. So what am I as layperson to do when confronted with two legitimate opposing viewpoints?

I think we need to exercise skepticism for both sides and accept that both sides may be true (insofar as they are plausible. The refutations of the historical data about the resurrection are quite weak).

So here follow some popularisations of the historical data:

If you accept the veracity of what we know about Plato, Julius Caesar and, Homer, you are forced to accept the truth of the New Testament accounts. The alternative is rejecting all ancient historical knowledge we have. The only way to keep one and reject the other is by being academically inconsistent.

Why should we trust the gospel accounts? While it is a game of “How far back can we postulate the Gospels’ origin” for many liberal and secular scholars, there are good historical and textual reasons for at least entertaining the possibility of them being written by people who were there.

Based on the veracity of Luke’s facts, Sir William Ramsay actually went so far as to say:  “Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy… [he] should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.”[15]

This is from a skeptical scholar.

Professor of classics at Auckland University, E.M. Blaiklock, wrote: “For accuracy of detail, and for evocation of atmosphere, Luke stands, in fact, with Thucydides. The Acts of the Apostles is not shoddy product of pious imagining, but a trustworthy record… it was the spadework of archaeology which first revealed the truth.”

I doubt whether there will be a definitive answer from history, but rejecting the accounts of the New Testament out of hand only shows bias.

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?

Staring at Glasses: Seeing Both Sides

I grew up in a house littered with magazines. Not the flimsy gossip-spattered weeklies that crowd many homes, though. My father has a complete collection of National Geographic starting from the 70’s to the present. Scientific Americans and popular mechanics would float through the household now and then, to be read to within an inch of their lives. Every week a new Time magazine would be ripped out of its plastic cover, promising a glimpse into another culture’s worldview.

It was through Time magazine, at age 15, that I had a kind of philosophical epiphany. They were running a feature called the science of happiness. A minor aside in the article mentioned that scientists found that church pushed the happy buttons very well. The journalist balanced the statement with something along the lines of “but we can’t know whether it’s the community aspect, or the presence of God.” He said it much better than me.

What suddenly struck me was similar to the glass-half-full/empty problem. We tend to lean strongly towards explanations that favour our worldviews. Problem is, this makes understanding other points of view really difficult. Our perceptions are shaped by those beliefs that root our universe.

So when we look at anything, we view it through our preconceived ideas. Take the example of church. When an atheist looks at it, he sees an institution based around our herd mentality that pushes the right buttons to give us an endorphin high. When a theist looks at it, he sees an institution based around the creator God’s will for our lives. The fact that it presses all the right buttons just proves the legitimacy of the claim even more.

Problem is, in terms of explanatory scope and internal consistency, both viewpoints could be right. Obviously at least one has to be wrong about the whole God thing, though.

When Nietzsche wrote the genealogy of morals, he put together a consistent framework that explained the origin of Judeo-Christian morality. Many viewed this as a definitive take-down of the status quo. While internally consistent, it disregarded the possibility that a God exists and that the moral code flowed from Him. Of course, Nietzsche was an atheist; it’s only natural that this is the way he’d see it. 

But both sides are equally valid, as long as God’s existence/non-existence remained unproven.  It’s only through our own worldview’s filters that one becomes stronger than the other. Based on our beliefs regarding the existence of God, we’ll see one side or the other clearly, with barely a glimmer of the opposite’s claim to truth.

This glass isn’t half full. It’s filled to the brim or completely empty, but both states look exactly the same. As with an optical illusion, we must try to see both the rabbit and the duck and evaluate each separately. And even then, all we may see is that neither one trumps the other. I have said it before: Choosing one is often not a question of philosophy. It’s a moral existential issue. But both can’t be right. 

And the answer changes everything. 

Opaque Mirrors and the Complexity of Belief

Pre-script: This post follows upon the previous one, though isn’t dependent on it.

Our lives are built on the foundation of our beliefs. This seems as self-evident as the beliefs that I hold; a conclusion so unavoidable that it makes any dissent seem ridiculous and misguided.

We all have them, but seldom store them in our minds: our beliefs have the tendency to filter down through the spongy matter of our brains and get caught in the beating cup of our hearts. The ideas which guide our lives are never simply things we think, but things we feel, things we KNOW.

Beliefs are fuzzy, squirming creatures: hard to pin down, almost impossible to dissect. I haven’t always believed this. For most of my life I though they were the product of rational thought. Ok, obviously not everyone’s, but definitely mine. Probably.

I’ve always tried to be rational, even when it was uncomfortable and forced me to change. So I fell prey to a kind of mental positivism, a science of ideas which solves all problems, if only we’d think hard enough.

I have since, in my dealing with philosophy, religion and doubt come to a different conclusion. The beliefs at our core are far from rational. They encapsulate the whole world for us, from our brains down to our genitals. When someone attacks them, it’s like a kick in the gut while our whole being is straining towards protecting our most precious assets.

I often find that the people with the most vaunted rational beliefs are the ones who have the deepest irrational reasons to protect them. I know this because I am one of them. It explains my fascination with philosophy, my euphoria at the discovery of Christian apologetics.

Because somewhere in me, I have always doubted, and that part of me wages war on the part that has always believed. My intellectualisation of the issues came after, it seems. This is something I often see. The people who have the greatest intellectual issues with religion are very often the ones who have been hurt and disappointed the most by religion and the inconstancy of its adherents. The emotion/moral problems underpin the intellectualisations.

The inverse is probably true of me. So when we talk, we’re not talking about God, we’re talking about a whole range of connotations that we might not even be aware of having.

That’s the big problem: the disconnect isn’t just philosophical. It bubbles up from below and mixes with what’s in your head until a mind “convinced against its will, will hold the same opinion still.” So can we ever truly engage authentically?

Only those who truly try will ever change their beliefs through reason, and even then it will take months or years. It is a painful, time-consuming process, ripping out a belief. The replacing idea needs to percolate all the way to your heart again, and while this happens you can only feel the hole left by the one you rejected.

So if I try to explain the reasons for my faith in Christ: Know that it is always a self-discovery to revisit your deeply held convictions. Know that it is never the whole picture. The workings of the heart is opaque to the mind, even when I try to delve deeper than regurgitated philosophy.

Know that all this might be true of you too. The hardest thing to do with ideas is engage them authentically. It leads to a life of discomfort.

But, given the choice, I will always choose the uncomfortable Truth over the slack-eyed stagnation of My truth.

The Agnostic’s Prayer

Pre-script: I realise that I have left my friend’s question very much unanswered, so I am thinking about how to approach the telling of that tale, but that will only happen in another post.

 

 

The other day, a close friend of mine asked me why I believed in Christ. After dithering for a moment, I launched into the beginning of a philosophical case for Christianity before hitting a wall. I was trying to describe a philosophical argument that I didn’t know by heart any more.

I have spent a large part of my life playing hopscotch over the line of Orthodox Christianity, my feet falling one side, then the other, but always moving. The thing is- I’ve always struggled with doubt because there is one thing that I am absolutely certain of: I may be very wrong. 

Back to the reasons for my faith: it all used to be so simple. I had ready answers to thorny questions. I used to be able to lay it out like a road map, but it’s harder these days. You see, as I get older, I recognise a growing complexity both within myself and the world around me. Nothing is ever really as simple as we believe them to be in the zeal of our intellectual awakening.

My journey of faith reflects that. In my few years as a thinking being, I have gone from ardent Christian through serious doubt, full agnosticism to semi-atheism and back with seeming regularity. As I’m confronted with new ideas, I force myself to re-evaluate what I previously took as gospel, all in search of the Truth. 

Yes, with a capital T. Because I care deeply about it. I am in a continuous struggle to find it in all its elusive complexity. I want my worldview and beliefs to cling to it like bark to a tree.

I believe the truth is knowable. I can hold beliefs that conform to the Truth, but I will never be certain when that moment comes, if it ever does. I will continue to doubt, because it’s the only way that I’ll ever get anywhere near that capital T.

I would like to call myself agnostic. It sounds so much better than Ignoramus, but I don’t affirm the unknowability of the unknown. That would imply more certainty than I’m comfortable with.

No, I pray my soft agnostic’s prayer, which goes something like this: God, (if you exist) lead me to the truth, whatever that may be. 

Amen.

Why we Sing

I rejected my faith once. It happened in the middle of a two-week Christian camp. While surrounded by others who exploded in their devotion to this Christian God, I stood as a doubter, seemingly alone in my heresy.

I don’t know if I’d ever felt that kind of loneliness before. Not even the calculated callousness of high school had managed to wake in me the chasm that I then felt between me and my fellow man. Nothing bites quite so hard as others’ fulfilment scratching at the glass of your emptiness.

You see, I had discovered that I had never before really taken a long hard look at my faith. Oh, I’d given it a cursory glance now and then, but never stared unflinchingly at its make-up, open to whatever I might find. What I discovered was that I did not have any first principles for my belief in the God of the Bible. I saw the coherence of the Christian Ethical framework; I could wholeheartedly agree with its picture of Humanity; I could see the life Jesus advocated and agree that, yes, this is the best way to be human.

But I could not tell you it’s true. I had embarked on a Cartesian voyage of doubt to try and find the origins of my faith and I had discovered that I could not muster up a single argument that I couldn’t take both sides on. I was at once a Christian and an Atheist.

I think that the discovery of apologetics saved me. I realised that there were men who’d fought the same fights as I had. They had spent their lives pondering the great mysteries and could give some kind of philosophical rigour to what had hitherto been an emotionally based intellectual pursuit. I could shake of this inconstant faith and step onto a more solid base.

With my discovery of philosophy and apologetics came my distrust and rejection of all things emotional. I had always tried to be as rational as possible, and had now found a methodology by which it could be done. I had discovered the enlightenment.

I distrusted church services. They seemed geared towards the manipulation of emotions. People sang, not because they loved God or believed what they sang, but because the band was awesome. The group instinct drove them to greater passion, together singing four lines over and over again. The mantra of the frenzied.

It seems that you create ghosts to replace the demons that you banish. With the advent of rationality I had lost my wonder. The analytical impulse is not helped by emotion, which causes trees to become fountains of green against the blue of a summer sky rather than collections of leaves and wood. Music became an instrument of manipulation. As a songwriter myself, I knew it intimately. Music is hardwired into your reptile brain.

The rediscovery of wonder came from many avenues, but mostly it came in a little package that would later become my wife. Jana once again opened my eyes to see that there is more than can be quantified. There is life to be discovered and revelled in.

I realised why we sing. We sing because we are forgetful. In the wandering pathways of our brains, we lose the colour of what we once knew in in our hearts and our minds. Knowledge that once stirred in our chests becomes dull, featureless fact.

So we sing. There is something in art that brings you back to what you know in your core. It chimes in a way that resonates in your spine while whispering to your mind. We sing, not because it stirs in us a memory of what we used to feel, but because it makes us feel those emotions all over again. We can again know the wonder of Grace and Love as if confronted for the first time. We can dance to what we affirm in our most sober of states.

I still believe in rationality. Religion is too important to be left to something as fickle as your feelings. People should never stop thinking about what they believe and why they believe it. Manipulation and delusion so easily dog the steps of the faithful.

But we should also not stop feeling. In the whirling dance of our hearts and minds we can find the calm centre where we come together as truly human and almost divine.

And then we truly sing.