Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Faith and Doubt

I am a Christian, but I am open to the possibility that God does not exist. This is not at all a paradox: I find that doubt and belief go hand-in-hand:

  • Intellectually, I have not seen a good proof of God's existence. Ergo doubt. But at the same time, I find the Christian story to be both credible and compelling. It answers deep philosophical questions within me.
  • Emotionally, I find the prospect of a morally relative world filled with selfish beasts to be horrifying. I am appalled by injustice. I am troubled by my own inadequacy and mortality. I find the Christian story of justice, mercy and love more than just comforting, I find it joyful.
  • Volitionally, I have decided to walk with Jesus. I have decided to try to do his will, even when I doubt, or am sad, or am angry. I pray to him, I read his words, I commune with his people. And in return for my decision, he has blessed me with assurance and joy.

So I am not 100% sure that God exists, but I have found that he rewards my obedience and search for him. I have found this verse to be true:
You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.
- Jeremiah 29:13

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Intellectual Arrogance and Faith in Science

All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas. Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.” – Acts 17:21-23

As a trained Pharisee, I’m sure Paul was impressed by the intellectual zeal of the Athenian philosophers. They loved knowledge and understanding, and wanted to approach everything in life with a rational view. Doesn’t this sound familiar! We live in a world where people love the titillation of new scientific discovery, stuff their heads with scientific factoids of no possible value to their lives (like the Large Hadron Collider, pictured at right), and place their hope for the resolution of suffering in technological breakthroughs, surely just around the corner, that will herald a new age of peace, prosperity and happiness.

Of course, this is all fantasy. Or perhaps even a malicious lie.

Just look at the past hundred years. The science of eugenics said that we could perfect the human race only if we selectively remove inferior individuals, which led to the horrors of the holocaust. Chemistry told us that a new wonder called DDT would wipe out mosquitoes and eliminate malaria, which did untold damage to ecosystems. Science has harnessed the stored energy of fossil fuels, which in releasing humans from physical labour have started a global climatic crisis we may not be able to contain.

The problem is, of course, arrogance. We think we understand things, and we do understand them just enough to manipulate them for short term gain. But of course our comprehension is shallow: we don’t fully understand things, and we have absolutely no inkling of the unintended consequences. Our world is far more complicated than we would like it to be, and certainly more complicated than our simplistic models of it.


So it this knowledge, this science really worthy of our love and hope? Where should we put our trust?

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

What is God like?


The only thing I’m sure about God is that nobody has a correct idea of what God is really like. How could we possibly imagine, much less understand, what an infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being could be like?

We struggle to understand why God allows children to starve, why God allowed Hitler and Stalin to do what they did, why he allows earthquakes and plagues. We struggle with his foreknowledge, which seems to preclude our free will. We often act as if God doesn’t love us or he isn’t watching us. And we have a hard time accepting that he could possibly forgive us despite our selfishness and hypocrisy.

So we have some preconceived notions about what God ought to be like, but sometimes these don’t match how God acts in the Bible, in history and in our lives. There are two possibilities here: either God doesn’t exist, or else he is not at all like what we imagined. As Chrys Jordan said:
I don't actively disbelieve in the "Christian God," so much as I seriously doubt such an entity exists. In my mind, such an entity is far too petty and too small to be the Creator of Everything. When I hear that God made everything in six days, I cannot but think: look at the world. Look at the universe. You think God is so small. When I hear that God is obsessed with trivial matters such as homosexuality, I cannot but think: look at how great the universe is. Do you think the source of all things is obsessed over trivia? The only thing I will say is that God must be great, and the image many Christians have of him must fall short.[1]
We find out some things about God from the Bible, but this is difficult, since much of the Bible is allegorical. For example, God told Abraham to kill his son Isaac and then intervened; does this episode show a hard, demanding God or a forgiving, loving God? Is the lesson to obey God no matter what, or to put an end to the Bronze Age practice of human sacrifice?

We inherit some ideas about God from our culture and religious tradition, but this is shifting sand, since our image of God has changed considerably in the past couple centuries. Consider, for example, the wrathful, righteous, judging God of the Puritans. Our modern idea of God is little like that of John Knox!

We get some of our ideas about God from personal experience. When I cry out to God in anguish and grief, he comforts me in very special ways. When I look at a tree swaying in the breeze, feel the warm sun on my face, listen to a gurgling brook, smell the rich earth on a farm and taste a freshly picked wild raspberry, I am in what the ancient Celts called a thin place and I feel particularly intimate with God.

But my encounters with God are not at all like yours. Some of our very real perceptions contradict each other. Even within my own life, surely some of my profound life-shaping events were pure coincidence or brain chemistry, and not divine intervention.

We have no shortage of ideas about what God might be; I would suggest that we have too much material to work with and we need to do some judicious editing. As J
eff Wilhite said,
I spend a lot of time continually challenging everything I believe. This makes my faith, my love for God and my understanding of Him so much stronger. Some of my most deeply held theological beliefs have been molded and shaped by the need to respond to very valid criticisms.
Some people’s faith is too rigid to bend. If you grow up believing that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and then you are confronted with the possibility that it might not be so inerrant after all, you have a decision to make. Do you throw out inerrancy or do you throw out God?

Many people will tell you that after enough of this theological whittling you will be left with no faith at all so you are better off scrapping it all to begin with, but I vehemently disagree with that sentiment.
In this process of theological whittling, you are only shaving away falsehoods. God is truth, and, as such, He has nothing to fear by your sincere and honest searching for truth. A fundamentalist faith (or even the picture of God many atheists hold) is just a solid, featureless block of wood. But after enough of this sincere searching for truth and whittling away at falsehoods, the face of a good and beautiful God begins to emerge. [2]
We discover God, piece by piece. We will not likely be fortunate enough to have him reveal himself as he did to the prophets of old, but that does not mean that he cannot be found.

Where do we start? When asked many years back what portions of the Bible should be retained as a foundation for one’s evolving faith, I had no good reply at the time; since then I have realized that this is precisely what the creeds were invented for. Take, for example, the Nicene Creed:
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and Earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. [3]

Nearly all of this is paraphrased from Biblical texts, and that which isn't comes from widely-accepted exegesis of Biblical texts. So this creed is on solid scriptural ground; it is concise enough that it is practical for every day; and it has stood the test of many centuries of examination. While it spends many words to refute heretical ideas, it consists of positive assertions we can use to formulate our own concept of God.




Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Why Christianity?

I am enough of a skeptic that I won't ever talk about the "one true religion." It may be impossible to justify such a claim, and history is replete with examples of such claims causing great harm.

What I can do is explain why I have chosen Christianity as my faith:
1. It provides a coherent world-view. I reject any religion that conflicts with widely accepted science.
2. It acknowledges that I am flawed. I know this to be true, so I reject any religion that insists I need to perfectly obey a set of rules.
3. It provides a remedy for my flaws. I reject any religion that leaves me helpless and hopeless.
4. It has sufficient documentary and archaeological evidence to be feasibly historically correct. I reject any religion that unbiased historians reject.
5. It provides me with a community of faithful, who can support me, from whom I can learn and with whom I can celebrate. I reject any religion that ignores my social needs.
6. I have found Christianity to answer my deep spiritual needs for comfort, love, peace and joy, and over the years I have come to know my creator as a person who loves me.

Monday, August 31, 2015

What is Faith, Anyway?


Note: I've been participating in an online discussion forum called Quora for over a year now, and as well as reading some very thought-provoking questions and replies from others, I have done a lot of outside reading and thinking myself. Several threads I'm following have to do with the nature of religious faith, and here are my current observations about faith.

The word has several meanings. Part of the reason why there is some contention about what faith is, is because faith has several related meanings:


  • An inner attribute. It is the motive to confide in things that are uncertain but useful or desirable. Like all elements of character, it can be strengthened with practice, but atrophies with disuse. In this sense it is related to the words belief, trust, confidence, hope, conviction or allegiance;
  • world-view. It is the complete set of axioms that underpin our understanding of our world. We commonly say that we believe certain tenets which cannot be shown conclusively to be true.  This means that we accept them because they complete our model of how life works, and allow us to make coherent decisions in the face of unknowns and uncertainty. In this sense it is related to the terms religion, system of belief or set of principles; and
  • lifestyle. It is the aggregate of all the actions we take that result from the world-view.

Faith is a very rich concept. Faith has many attributes - it is:
  • Subjective. Much of the evidence we have for our faith is based on personal experience. Although there is also objective evidence for the tenets of our faith, most is circumstantial and in aggregate it is supportive but not conclusive. Although some people are convinced that objective evidence conclusively shows their tenets to be true, if this were true then much of the scientific community would accept those tenets;
  • Volitional. We choose to accept certain tenets into our world-view and then choose to live accordingly. Although we can (and should) continue to explore our doubts, we take confident action despite uncertainty. Although some people base their faith on an authority (such as a priest, the church or scripture), in the final analysis the power of that authority derives from the adherent’s assent;
  • Rational. Faith is logical, rational and methodical, being based on reason and both subjective and objective evidence. It is not scientific, as the most convincing evidence is subjective and the empirical evidence is non-conclusive. But we can be rational without being scientific;
  • Dynamic. Our faith changes with time, both in its tenets and its strength. Whenever we make an error, it is reasonable to examine its causes; sometimes it is a result of an inaccurate tenet of faith. At this point it would be silly to hang onto the tenet rather than to learn from experience and modify our world-view. Further, our successes and failures cause our confidence in our world-view to grow or shrink;
  • Consistent. Faith should not contradict our observations and experiences, or the trusted observations of others (for instance, science). If we hang onto a tenet of faith despite contradictions, we say that that faith is blind rather than rational; and
  • Necessary. We need to make assumptions to combine with incomplete knowledge in order to make life choices. Disallowing these assumptions may make a rational choice impossible. For instance, we can never be certain that our choices of career or spouse were the best possible. An element of faith was required: we hoped or trusted that the outcome would be satisfactory.

Food for thought!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Let Us Remember

This post was originally a homily I delivered at my local church.

My grandfather, who was injured in France in 1944.
On this Remembrance Day, we have a lot to think about. This has been a trying autumn for us. When Canada withdrew from Afghanistan we all hoped that we’d have a brief time to rest and recover. But the long list of countries embroiled in war has lengthened. As I write, Canadian warplanes are dropping bombs on ISIS as ISIS attempts to continue its brutal massacre in Iraq and Syria. And the strife was brought home last month with the murders of Corporal Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent.

Those of you who know me know that I just retired this past summer from 35 years in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Being in the military and also a practicing Christian, I spent many hours contemplating God’s direction concerning war.

But this is a matter that is important to all of us, not just combatants because we elect the Government that sent them overseas, and we pay taxes to buy their weapons. How can we make sense of all this? This is not a comfortable topic, but I’ll share some of my thoughts with you this morning.

Perhaps not coincidentally, each of the readings in the Anglican cycle for November 9th speak to warfare, but each in a different way.

The setting for the Old Testament reading (Joshua 24) is after the conquest of Canaan. The people of Israel were war-weary. The speaker is an elderly Joshua, the conquering general, near the end of his life. He describes all the wonderful things that God had done to bless and protect his people.

God also protects us: individually and as a nation. The instruments of this security are our soldiers, sailors, aviators and police. God is using our military as an instrument of his protection. While we may not feel safe at this particular moment, we need to trust that God has a plan and that tragic events have a purpose in our growth and God’s glory.

If you’re like me, you may tend to focus your faith and study on the Gospels and Epistles. But perhaps the tough-love books of the Old Testament can help us unravel and comprehend how loving our neighbour could possibly include going to war.
 
My friend Ning and me, in Bosnia in 2001.
We long for peace, but live in a fallen world. Sometimes we need to send our young men and women to war to confront evil directly.

On this Remembrance Day, let us pray for the safety of the soldiers currently in harm’s way at home and abroad; let us pray for healing for soldiers returning with wounds in body and spirit; let us pray for the families of our soldiers; and let us thank God for his protection.

The Psalm reading (Psalm 78) mentions “dark sayings” that we should “tell to our children, so that they should set their hope in God.”

Why would we want to distress our children with the dark things of the world? Well, it’s pretty inescapable these days. And if you think about it, that’s exactly what we do on Remembrance Day.

Of course we tailor the story line to the age of our kids. But we must never stop telling our children the stories they should know in order to be good citizens who can protect against future evils and direct our Government in decisions of war and diplomacy

These are stories of love; not in the romantic sense, like we see all the time in the movies, but in the deeper, sacrificial sense. (Students of the Bible may know the Greek word for this, agape.) We need to tell our young children that our grandparents, aunts and uncles love us so dearly that they are willing to face pain, fear and death to protect the powerless.

On this Remembrance Day, let us thank God for the loving sacrifice of those who gave themselves for us.

The third reading, from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thess 4), speaks of death, resurrection and triumph in the end times. We are told not to grieve for those who have died as if we have no hope.

This verse reminds me of the poem by Laurence Binyon:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
So today's readings speak volumes:

  • We need to be ready like the bridesmaids for whatever comes next, rather than allowing this to shatter our faith;
  • As Paul urged the Thessalonians, we need to be confident in God’s justice and the resurrection of the victims;
  • As the Psalmist commanded, we need to teach our children the deep meaning behind these murders; and
  • Finally, though we are weary and angry at these atrocities, we need to pray for God to guide our nation away from vengeance and toward loving protection.

The lesson here is two-fold: we should not despair at fallen soldiers – always recalling the heavenly hope they have of resurrection; and we also should be grateful for the earthly hope that they earned through suffering and gave to us as our heritage of freedom, justice and love. Their act is a reflection of Christ, who also gave himself to free us from the power of evil.

On this Remembrance Day, let us pray for the souls of the fallen, that God may have mercy on them; and let us thank God for the blessings He has given us through their deaths.

And finally, we come to the Gospel lesson, from Matthew 25. Like the bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable, we too must be prepared. The world is a confusing place with great violence and uncertainty. Evil is roaring in the night preying on the desperate and vulnerable.

We must not let our lamp go out. And we must not run out of lamp oil. We need to be spiritually prepared for whatever may come.

So, what can we pull out of today’s readings to help understand the fear and pain we see?

Holy God, on this Remembrance Day, we strive to be your light in this fallen world. When we read the news we are tempted to despair; so we pray for understanding, hope and peace. When we consider what to do, we are tempted to anger; so we pray for wisdom, courage and compassion.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Why is it so difficult for people to accept Jesus into their hearts?

This discussion originally appeared in the online forum Quora.

If you pose this question to the general public or even the Christian community, you will get a lot of interesting rhetoric and some metaphysical pondering, but few serious answers. Non-Christians are likely to mock the concept of having someone in your heart, while Christians will lament the tragedy but be unable to explain it.

Here is a list of why people might not accept Christ:


1. They have not yet heard of him. Despite millennia of evangelism, there are many people who have not heard the Gospel. And there are many in Western society who fall in this category, not just remote tribes in Papua.

2. They have a partial or incorrect understanding of the Gospel. I know many people who believe that in Christianity, our acceptance into paradise is contingent on our good deeds outweighing our bad deeds!


3. They have not given it much thought. Maybe they have a different religion or no religion, but in any case they have made no intellectual analysis of the claims about Christ.

4. They have heard and analyzed the Gospel, and reject it as unfounded, unlikely, manipulative or even farcical.

5. They accept the Gospel as possibly true, but do not perceive their own sinfulness or defiantly reject submission to any lord.

6. They understand and accept the Gospel, but do not know how to accept Jesus into their hearts.

There are likely many other reasons.


________________________________________________


As Christians we should reflect on the corollary, "Why do so many people claim to have accepted Christ but behave as if they have not?" This certainly has a profound effect on people who are contemplating accepting Jesus into their hearts. The strongest evangelical witness we could ever provide is to be a sincere, confident, thoughtful Christian whose actions reflect Christ's love of God and neighbour.

___________________________________________

So far as reason #6 above, in my understanding and experience, to accept Jesus in my heart I needed:


1. Intellectual understanding of who Christ claims to be and what he offers me. This is actually fairly clear, though there are unanswered problems, widespread misunderstandings and variant interpretations. Despite this, there is consensus on the fundamentals: see the wiki article on the Nicene Creed; and


2. Willful emotional acceptance of the man-God Jesus as lord and personal savior. This too is fairly clear: once I am aware of my own sin (Romans 3:23-24) and his solution (Intercession of Christ), I decide to accept his offer and voice this decision to him in prayer.


But having accepted Jesus as lord of my life, I have spent 40 years studying to improve my understanding, discerning what he commands me to do, wrestling with doubt, and railing against his difficult assignments.