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.

Jesus and the Wrestlers

Jesus told these stories.

He’s famous for them, actually, and why not? Stories are great. You see them employed everywhere difficult concepts are explained simply. Stories make nebulous concepts clear, they make understanding easier.

Except when Jesus tells them.

Jesus didn’t seem too taken with absolute clarity. He would often answer direct questions by telling a long story and then walking away, leaving everyone confused. His disciples never really got the hang of it either, often returning to their master to ask for some kind of explanation. Jesus, it seems, was making things difficult on purpose.

This has always seemed to be the case in the rest of the Bible as well. The old testament is mostly a collection of ancient stories and artworks collected into a single volume. Some stories are inspiring and beautiful, but much of it is just plain weird to me.

A prophet takes a walk and some children mock him, so he calls a curse on them in God’s name and two bears maul the kids. 42 of them, to be exact. That’s it. (2 Kings 2:24)

Two daughters get their father hammered so they can have sex with him. (Genesis 19:36)

A poet writes a song in which he says “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:9)

It goes on like this, for hundreds of pages. What do we make of these stories? When people call the Bible God-breathed, do they mean “This story’s so obtuse, Jesus could have told it?” Stories just end, seemingly without closure or some Aesopian moral, like the book of Jonah’s powerful conclusion: “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

And also many animals indeed. Open ending have been with us for a while, it seems. This open-endedness only deepens when we start looking more closely at our holy writ.

Nineve could almost certainly not have been as big as it is described in Jonah. The amount of people is accurate… For a hundred years after the time Jonah was said to have lived.

God tells David to hold a census (2 Samuel 24). No, wait, it was the devil (1 Chronicles 21). It’s the same census, but the Bible claims two radical different reasons for it.

What kind of God make his Word so damn confusing? If it’s God’s word, shouldn’t it be basically straightforward? Shouldn’t it give us simple rules to live by (and don’t get me started on how weird the actual rules inthe Bible are)? If the Bible is God’s love letter to us, I don’t think I’d want to introduce her to my parents.

I’m not saying there aren’t explanation for the weirdness and inconsistencies. But it takes some digging to get to them. Getting the neccessary tools to read the Bible well is a life-long journey. You have to struggle with the text for a long time.

A lot like the disciples who were listening to Jesus’ stories. If the point of a parable is not to tell you something about the world, but to change the way you interact with it (Peter Rollins), there is more involved than simply understanding what a story’s about. We only ever change through engaging deeply. It is when we hurl our very spirit into something that we find changes in the shapes of our souls.

I think this is true of Jesus’ stories. By making his parables difficult, he forced those who were really serious about his words to wrestle with their meaning, to truly engage, and through the engagement discover something about themselves and God in a way that impacted them deeply.

I find it interesting that, before he is blessed and named Israel, Jacob is portrayed as physically wrestling with God. For hours. And he gets his hip broken in the process. True change doesn’t happen without wrestling and pain.

So maybe we are looking at large pieces of the Bible in the wrong way. In the third Liturgists podcast Peter Enns talks about one of his Jewish professors at Harvard. The professor told him that historically, for Jews, the bible is a problem to be debated, not a message to be delivered. You find God in the struggling with the text, in the reconciling of contradictions. And there are different people who do it differently. And they may both be good.

“In the Talmud, the great collection of Jewish tradition in talking about the Bible and Jewish life,” says Enns, “They’re forever going back and forth, debating how to understand this stuff and what to do with it. And the debate is canonised. It’s the debate that’s there for people to read and look at… The debate is the way that union with God is fostered.”

We can even see this conversation happening in the Bible: in the changing way that God is viewed and portrayed. They were moving, growing, getting beter at understanding God.

Maybe the reason getting to final conclusions on the Bible is so difficult is because that was never the point. What if the Bible is a tool, rather than just a text? What if it points to Jesus in more than just words, but in difficult stories and changed hearts? Is it possible that all those inconsistencies might actually make this book MORE authoritative, MORE inspired?

We Christians have made accuracy into an artform, dissecting the Bible so that we may find the exact true meaning of every verse and then take an inflexible stand on your interpretation. Maybe it’s not the answer that’s important, but the honest wrestling with the text in search of the answer. Because that is the only way we will ever truly embody the message of the Bible.

People living out the agonising beauty of love and self-sacrifice, taking part in the very nature of God. If I had to write a holy book, that would be a much better result than a set of rules. It isn’t called the living word for nothing.

Shattered Monolith: Inbreeding in the Church

In the beginning was the church.

No, not THAT beginning. I’m talking a little under 2000 years ago, when the first people professed belief that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead, legitimising all he had claimed to be. It was a ragtag group of followers, that first church, ranging from tax collectors and fishermen to a doctor and even some women (at the time, this was super controversial).

These people told others about what they had experienced and soon this little band of believers had grown enough to intimidate the Jewish leaders of the time. Given some persecution and another couple of decades, the church grew to include the gentiles, non-Jewish believers from places like Antioch, Syria and Athens and Rome. It is basically impossible to imagine a more diverse set of people, but they were united in the affirmation of Jesus’ resurrection and the strange implications it had for those who believed.

Trying to figure out what Jesus’ word meant for them brought many controversies. The people were divided and incensed. They struggled with all the strangeness inherent in the Christian message. It took them 600 years to find the language to try and describe the idea of the trinity, this supremely weird three-in-one God that Jesus and the Jewish scriptures alluded to.

The more we feel we’ve figured something out, the stronger we hold our convictions. This is true of institutions too. As the church grappled with Christ, it hardened into a doctrinal faith, with very specific affirmations of what it entailed. Hard things are very often brittle and the harder the church became, the more easily it shattered. The more intensely the people within the Church enforced their conception of orthodoxy, the more easily it schismed, scattering chips and fragments all over the world…

Gene pools are interesting things. They need diversity to work. If you confine any set of animals to an enclosed gene pool for long enough, it will start imploding. I think this is an apt analogy for the church.

You see, I found a little certificate in my desk drawer a while back. This little slip of paper stated that I had made a confession of faith. Interestingly, it also stated that I had confessed to believing that the Dutch Reformed church’s teaching were all true. Whoah.

Thinking back now, I realise that this has always been the assumption. Whenever I’m asked about the church I attend, there is an implicit question about what I believe. I do it too. Somehow, in the intricate splintering of the church based on the tiniest theological differences, it is expected that the church you attend is the one you agree with completely, but the only people I’ve ever met who completely agree with everything their church espouses are the ones who don’t think very hard about it.

The church has never been homogenous. I don’t think it was ever meant to be. Toeing the theological party line leads to spiritual and theological inbreeding. It’s toxic and dangerous, because that is how cults work. If you have enough people patting each other on the back because they believe the exact same things, you tend to become inflexible and judgemental.

The church is a conversation. That’s how it started, at least. Finite people trying to figure out the infinite (Hint: it can’t be done). And that was OK. They disagreed vehemently before sitting down and sharing meals, because that’s how you figure stuff out. Not by simply affirming what someone says and congratulating ourselves on our similar beliefs.

I want to go to a church where I’m free to disagree, where the conversation is as important as the conclusions we reach. I want a place where I can be shocked and challenged by those who differ wildly from me while still sharing our connection in Christ.

I think that’s what the church was meant to be: chaotic, diverse, challenging, but in the end, because of this, humble, loving, and alive.

Amen.

Occam’s Dirty Razor.

Long ago in a land far, far away (from mine, at least), there lived a man named William of Ockham. William was a pensive type who would often try to figure out the logic of everything (or so we’re told). He was so good at this that, hundreds of years after his death, another thinker named a well known philosophical tool after him: Ockham’s razor.

Ockham’s razor has, as these things do, slowly changed to Occam’s razor over the years. The point of the idea is simple: when any two explanations for something come into competition with each other, we should favour the one with the least assumptions. The simpler explanation should stay behind after the razor has been wielded.

This is something we do every day, actually. We immediately see that it is better to explain the turning of a water wheel by the obvious explanation rather than the activity of fairies. In a world where there may be an infinity of possible explanations, Occam’s razor frees us to only ponder those that matter.

Unfortunately, it is also one of the most widely misused tools in philosophy. Electricity is much more complex than simply saying lights work by magic. The razor only truly functions when all the available explanations are equally (im)plausible. The domain of Occam’s great blade is in the unknown.

Which is, once again, something that we are confronted with daily. Humans have evolved as categorisers and storytellers. When Terry Pratchett calls us Homo Narrativus, or the storytelling ape, he implies that this is what actually sets us apart from other species we know. People see things happening and immediately make up stories to connect them. It is why we have developed science. It is why we are able to plan for the future and learn from our past. I agree with Mr Pratchett (I usually do), our penchant for stories has been as important to our development as our opposable thumbs. 

So here we are, 21st century man, master of the universe. What does this have to do with me? Everything. Every day, when you click on a link or open a blog (or consume anything on the internet) you are being given a depiction of reality that says: This is how things really are.

This is where Occam comes in. The more plausible and simple these stories seem, the greater the chance that we’ll take them at face value. Writers are incentivised to work within the dominant frameworks we use to categorise the world. We all know that celebrities do silly things, so why question the newest gossip column? Big corporations are always evil, right? Environmentalists are always noble. Herbal means healthy and the news is always true.

Except it isn’t like that. Reality is almost never as simple as the heuristics we use to filter it, but our bias tends to favour the explanations that fall solidly within the narratives we are comfortable with. The problem is: The people generating the content know this.

They know that if they keep us comfortable, we will keep clicking. No worldview-threatening stories are allowed to shake the reader base, because pageviews equal money. This is why all you ever see on anti-GMO blogs are things that demonise GMO. The pattern holds true for everything from Jezebel to Christianity Today. To a man with a hammer every problem looks like a nail. The only thing that changes is the different types of hammers.

When they heard about the filter bubble, people were aghast at the implications without realising that they’d been doing the same thing voluntarily for years. We crawl into little internet ghettos where likeminded people pat each other on the back for being likeminded. I get it. It’s comfortable. I do it too.

But the world is too complex for this kind of reduction. We owe it to ourselves to escape our ghetto and see how other people live and think. Your mind is only as broad as the horizon that you paint for it. Smallmindedness is self-perpetuating and comforting. Others will feed this drive towards insignificance. Nobody will help you fight it if you don’t do it yourself first.

If Occam’s razor is dirty, the only thing it’ll give you is tetanus. 

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.

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.