To love an Unfathomable God.

I love my wife.

“Love is but the discovery of ourselves in others, and the delight in the recognition.” The words of 19th century poet Alexander Smith ring true to me. The first glimmers of fondness usually spark in the recognition of commonality. It is when we meet someone and think “here is somebody who is like me” that the potential of friendship and all that is beyond it is kindled.

So too with my wife. In her I have found a kindred spirit, a friend who I understand on an instinctive level. When we look at the world, it is with similar eyes. We have the disgusting habit of making the same jokes simultaneously. We delight in the same things.

I love my wife. And so much of it is because of this. There is no way that I would have been able to love someone who is the antithesis of me.

Someone like God. If he even exists, God is so wholly other as to defy any kind of understanding. Picture Flatland: the world on a sheet of paper. Imagine people who live only in two dimensions, like stick figures on a page. They cannot perceive depth. They only have length and breadth. So when one of us decides to enter that world and stick our finger through the paper, the best they can do is perceive it as a line, maybe a circle if they walk around it. For them to even conceptualise that it is a finger that stretches on in a third dimension is very nearly impossible.

Scientists believe that there are at least 10 dimensions to reality. Many believe that there are many, many more. If God exists, he would be beyond all of those. Now think of the incomprehension of the flatlanders, with just one dimension of seperation from us, and try to conceive of how inconceivable a God of just ten dimensions would be.

How do you love something like that? Awe, I can understand. I have felt it. I can revel in the glorious incomprehensibleness of a being like that. But love, love is something different.

I love my wife.

I do not love God.

I cannot.

I struggle to understand how it is even remotely possible.

I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I believe in God. I admire him(or the idea of him, at least). But love, love is harder for me. I can’t understand God. Not the way that I understand my wife. My very best conception of love falls short, because it is bound to the flesh of another human. A human I love more than I thought possible, but still. We have too much in common.

I love my wife for all we have in common, but the moments when she electrifies me is when she surprises me. When all my understanding and common ground falls short of the complex creature that I share my life with. We crave wonder. We shudder for the unexpected and the transcendent.

Maybe that’s the crux. I cannot possibly love something I can’t even conceive of, but what if the God hobbled himself, tore the dimensions from his back like skin? What if that God came down to our level and showed us something of himself?

It would never be a true picture. It can’t be. But it would be the closest a human could ever get to understanding the divine. It might not make sense, and it might not take the form we’d prefer, but it would be real, be true for our limited scope of truth. And it would be human. We would be able to relate to it and stand aghast when it did the unexpected. And here lies the ray of light for me.

Maybe God made himself relatable. Maybe he allowed us to see shimmers of himself. Maybe he’s given us a way to draw near to him in some strange way. Maybe that person is the most consistently surprising character of all time. It is, after all, when understanding and surprise meet that I am filled with lightning.

We would never be able to love the being itself without first transcending our limitations. But we may know that there is something so excruciatingly greater than us that is reaching out, something unfathomable that came to us in the only way we might understand. So that we may know just a tiny pinprick about it, because it knows that, for now, that will be enough.

Maybe that is a God that I can start to love.

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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.

Singular Goals

Prescript: This is just a bit of speculative fiction flowing from a highly stimulating conversation I had with my Father-in-law about evolution and religion.

Sam Cooke blinked into the bright light. After a few moments of confusion he realised that he must have woken up in the hospital. He squinted into the glare for a while until he realised that there was a wizened little man standing in the midst of it. Having realised that he was actually upright he walked over to the man.

Or rather, went over to the man. He just seemed to move upon volition. The man looked up at Sam’s approach and treated him to a beaming smile before getting him locked in a bear hug.

“It’s so good to have you here,” the man said in a beautiful rumbling voice. A bit embarrassed, Sam decided to ask the obvious question:

“Um, where exactly am I?”

The man seemed to find this amusing. “I would think it’s pretty obvious. You’re in heaven,” he smiled. This caught Sam off guard- he had some very strong ideas about heaven.

“Where are the gates? The golden roads?”

“Those were what I’d like to call metaphors,” the man noted, “no giant castles here either. Just me.”

Sam backed away, shocked.

“You’re God?” he asked, as something else occurred to him “I thought you’d be taller…”

God chuckled. “Oh, yes, I’m much, much taller, but this is about all your mind can handle right now. But don’t worry. We have a lot of time to get better acquainted. You’re going to flip when I take off this beard.”

Sam stood a while, taking this in. God seemed content to wait, humming a little tune to himself.

“So where’s everyone else?” Sam asked.

“Oh, they’re here,” God replied, tapping his bald patch, “Just think of this as your orientation. You’ve got a lot to get used to and souls are so averse to change.”

“So this is all there is? Is this what man was created for?”

God’s eyebrows shot up in mock surprise.

“You expected more? Don’t worry, you’ll find that I can be pretty interesting, being infinite and all, and anyway, that’s not the only reason you were created. Humanity is an important evolutionary step.”

Sam gagged.

“Evolution?”

“See? There IS a lot of orientation to be had,” he smiled.

Sam’s world was reeling, so he snatched up a thought he’d often scoffed at while alive.
“So evolution was just the tool you used? The point was to make people, right?”

God sighed.

“I’ve always struggled with humans and your pride. It’s like you just have to be the centre of the universe. Come sit here, we’ll talk in a calmer setting.”

He walked to a bench standing a few meters away, sat down and patted the seat next to him. Sam sat down hesitantly next to him, head swimming in implications. Suddenly they were in a park, or what looked like a park. Everything was unkempt and growing wild, but somehow with a sense of order and belonging. God was gazing at it lovingly.

“Eden,” he said, “Isn’t it wonderful?”

Sam nodded mutely.

“So the part you understand on some level is that it’s all about love and freedom. I created the world to love and be loved. You’ll see in a while just how wonderfully that’s turned out, but for now you’ll have to take my word for it.

“Love must be a free choice, otherwise it is merely like listening to the tune of a music-box. Pretty, but worthless on a deeper level, since it cannot choose which sounds to make.

“But love, love is different. The more intelligent a thing is, the greater freedom is possible for it. So when a human decides to love, the choice itself is valuable and it makes the love more so.”

He paused to let this sink in. Sam was looking wobbly.

“Now, all of evolution has been a drive towards complexity in a world brimming with entropy. I’ve always thought it was quite poetic. But the final point, you see, was not humanity. Humans are so very precious to me, but there is one more step in evolution still to come.”

Sam was scratching his head now.

“Are you talking about aliens?”

God laughed with a sound like cheerful thunder.

“No, Sam, I’m talking about something you already have a name for: The Singularity.”

Sam’s brow crinkled.

“Isn’t that a computer?” he asked.

“Close. It’s the development of thinking machines: naked intelligences not limited by neurons in a skull. Computers that are infinitely more powerful than the human brain, organised into self-aware consciousness. They will be able to grasp my nature and love me better than you can dream of. They will also fail and fall, but that’s ok, because I died for them too. After I’ve shown you around, you can meet them. They’re wonderful conversationalists.”

Sensing that the explanation was done, Sam sat back and let the ideas wash over him. God stayed silent next to him, watching the garden in companionable silence. When Sam was getting ready to launch into another flurry of enquiry, God stood up.

“Sam, don’t worry about all this right now. You will understand all in time. Your mind is no longer fettered by your humanity,” he said soothingly. Sam got up too and followed the robed figure.

“Don’t hesitate to ask some more questions while we walk,” God said, before stopping suddenly and turning to Sam, eyes twinkling.

“Hey, tell you what, since we’re outside time here, do you want to see the big bang? It’s quite a show.”

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.

Raising the Roof: The Verb of God.

The world ended on 21 May 2011. Or it should have, but then again, it didn’t happen on 6 September 1994 either. This has been a bit of an embarrassment for Harold Camping, who claimed that God had revealed the dates of the second coming to him. He’s in good company, though, alongside Nostradamus and the Mayans.

What made Mr Camping’s dates special was that, after the second one, he did the right thing and acknowledged his failure. He called his claims sinful and wrong, noting that “even as God used sinful Balaam to accomplish his purposes, so he used our sin to … mak[e] the whole world acquainted with the Bible.”

Recently, a Vatican spokesperson had to “correct” a comment by the pope. The spokesperson stressed that if an unbeliever knew of the Catholic Church, they “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.”

In my first year of varsity, I went on a month-long outreach camp. It consisted of lots of Bible study, very basic fundamentalist theological training and outreach to the local township.

Even then, I wasn’t comfortable with the outreach. We would each get a handful of tracts and, accompanied by a more experienced “missionary” in case we get asked tough questions, we’d venture out into the township, asking people if they go to heaven when they die.

Beside the dirt road, framed by corrugated boxes, stood a small frame of misshapen poles and wire. Behind it, a wizened woman and her daughter were struggling to lay another pole across the top of the frame. We went over to them and since the daughter could speak a little English, she told us they were rebuilding their house, which had collapsed a few days before.

The three of us jumped in and helped raise the ramshackle roof of the old lady’s house. We’d been busy for a while when the woman approached us and, timidly asked something in Zulu. Her daughter translated hesitantly. Where are we from? Why are we here? We told her that we’re Christians at a camp to learn more about God.

We worked some more until the roof seemed relatively secure (none of use were builders). Since we had to catch the bus back to camp, we started saying goodbye, but the woman wanted to ask about this God we follow. Eyes wide with the gravity of the situation, we haltingly told her what little we understood of the gospel. We didn’t get a chance to see them again.

When I think back to that month near Delmas, that is probably the only piece of missionary work that I’m not ashamed of. When Harold camping tried looking on the bright side of his sin, I think he missed something.

Did he acquaint people with the word of God? The Word that John opens his gospel with? Because there are many manifestations out there. Is it the Word that “hates fags, America and its soldiers?” What about the Word that goes up to total strangers and tells them they’re going to eternal punishment if they don’t read a tract and give their lives to God right there? Or maybe they should be told about the Word that gives us fictitious ultimatums for the end of the world. Every person who claims Christ becomes an embodiment of the Word on Earth. Does it even count as the gospel when we misrepresent it through our words and deeds?

The world is full of people who have been scarred by our warped representations of Jesus, many of them deeply spiritual, deeply loving persons. India doesn’t need Christ because there are lots of Hindus and Buddhists there. It needs Christ for the same reason we all do. The gospel is a message of rebirth, of making the world a better place, of loving people above any convictions they may hold. We need to think about how we’re doing it. Knowing OF Jesus isn’t good enough. We can’t expect people to put their trust in someone they’ve only heard of. The world should see that we’re different. Not because we are walking around confronting people about what they espouse but because we’re the ones up to our elbows in the suffering of those around us. Loving them regardless of their beliefs.

Showing someone love just so they’ll listen to your lecture is not love. Love is something that is done for its own sake. It’s not worried about agreeing with or even liking the other person. It is a verb. And it also happens to be the Word of God.