Friday, September 13, 2013

Crutch or Truth? Seeing God Despite Doubt

How do we know?

How do we know the God of the Bible is the one, eternal God of the universe?

How do we know that Jesus is His Son, and that our belief in that relationship saves us from eternal damnation in Hell?

How do we know there's a literal Heaven and a literal Hell, anyway?

What makes Christianity as true and compelling as its adherents claim it to be?  Can't Christianity simply be seen as a comprehensive collection of folklore, fables, superstitions, and moral traditions contrived to explain the reality of life as we encounter it?  What makes Christianity fact, instead of mythology?

These are questions people have been asking since the time of Christ.  In fact, people have been disputing the existence of God since at least before the time of Noah.  And, um, that great flood, that many people think is simply a far-fetched allegory about true goodness being rare in the world.

I mean, really!  How did so few men build so great a seafaring craft that it could sustain the menagerie of God's animal kingdom for those mystical 40 days?  Noah's Ark may be a cute theme for a child's bedroom, but I'm too intelligent a person to peg my identity on a religion that expects me to take it as historical fact.

It's that kind of pride and self-confidence amongst unbelievers that stokes their incredulity.  And even among professing Christians.  Indeed, not everybody who claims to be a Christian believes they need to take the Bible literally.  Isn't interpreting the Bible's stories and narratives as metaphors, allegories, and literary poetry a far more rational approach to Christianity?  A belief system which, after all, is but one of many ways of pursuing universal truth?

How can some Christians defend "every jot and tittle" of the Bible as infallible?  Inerrant?  Considering all of the translations, transcriptions, and primitive documentation techniques throughout the history of interpersonal communication, how do we know this stuff hasn't acquired a fanciful level of embellishment?  Line up ten adults, whisper a sentence to the first one, and by the time that sentence gets repeated through all ten people, it rarely resembles the original.

Don't Christians expect their adherents to take so much on sheer faith?

And then they tell us that the peace they receive from their Sovereign Deity makes all of the uncertainty, lack of quantifiable proofs, and unreasonableness worth it.  They can't really describe that peace, except to say that it "passes understanding."  Awfully convenient, isn't it?  Saying that the rewards they get for believing what they can't verify can't be verified, either.

We've seen the sort of "peace" members of certain cults exhibit:  the blind trust in their leader, even in the face of obvious fallacies.  What separates Christianity from any other cult, except the fact that Christianity is so popular and conventional?

Indeed, the culture of Christianity evangelicals have historically enjoyed in North America has created a deceptively shallow environment in which we've been able to perpetuate our faith.  Even within communities of faith, a lot of people really don't know why they believe what they believe - if they even know what they believe!  Now, we're seeing how shallow that environment has been, as moral standards that were once unchallenged in our society are becoming imperiled by greater and greater numbers of people asking all of these same questions in ever-louder voices.

How can one group of people expect protections and exceptions simply by saying their holy book is better than another religion's holy book?  What makes the way I want to live my life more offensive than the way you want to live yours?  You say yours is the religion of freedom; well, I want my freedom!

Evangelicals have been taught that we should respond to these questions, criticisms, and complaints from society in the same fashion that Jesus responded to Satan when he tempted Him.  In other words, we should use Scripture as our defense.  And there's nothing wrong with that.  But it's not necessarily the only approach.

Consider the fact that the Devil believes God exists.  He used to be an angel himself.  Jesus could quote Scripture and drive Satan away because they were both communicating with a shared knowledge of the Author of their reality.  Mortals, however, who don't believe God exists, aren't necessarily going to give any credence to His Word.  Why should they, if they don't trust the Author of the Bible?

Perhaps, when our audience can appreciate its legitimacy, believers in Christ can rely on the Bible to provide answers for the hope that is inside of us, and we can offer narratives from our personal testimony when our audience doesn't consider the Bible legitimate.  Think of it as a matter of perspective.  The Bible teaches that only the Holy Spirit can illuminate God's Word, but we can't always recognize those people in whom the Holy Spirit is at work.  Besides, Christians should be able to put into our own words the reasons for why we believe what we believe, right?

For example, we evangelicals believe that all of Creation tells the glory of God.  In fact, if we don't give God glory, Creation will literally cry out instead.  So, although it sounds eerily like New Age pantheism, I have to admit that I cannot look at trees, or contemplate mathematics, or watch the tide, or look at a newborn animal without believing that some sort of "greater power" orchestrated all of it.  Wouldn't this "greater power" have to be all-knowing and all-powerful?  I mean:  Look around you!  Don't just take all of what you see for granted.  If the God of the Bible didn't create all of this, then another supreme being had to.  Had to!

It takes more faith to believe evolutionary theory than the Bible's literal account of Creation.

How about the Bible as literature?  Doesn't it strike you as amazing that, aside from some minor technical aberrations, there is not one significant discrepancy within the content of a book compiled of different manuscripts by different authors, writing in different languages, over a span of centuries?  Our world has known some pretty impressive writers, but no other holy book has stood the test of time and academic scrutiny like the Bible.  Isn't it too consistent not to trust?

Then there's the Christian Deity Himself:  God.  God isn't just one person, but He's three people!  God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  Bizarre, right?  Why complicate your religion with a concept humanity will never understand?  Christians call our tripartite Deity the "Trinity," but that word isn't even in the Bible!  Why intentionally make a faith concept that has to utterly depend on faith in the unseen and unexplainable?  The only explanation has to be that this is simply the way it is.  Things can exist whether we believe they exist or not.  God's three selves - as the Chinese government officially describes Christianity - is/are one/three of those Things.

Of course, the hardened skeptic will still be protesting the idea that only God's Holy Spirit can reveal His truth to humanity.  What a cop-out!  So, Christians can simply dismiss somebody's unbelief as a lack of something none of us can see or quantify?  Shouldn't we be working a little harder at trying to make this make sense?

Which, actually, brings us to the most bizarre part of Christianity:  you and I do nothing to get it.  We do nothing to earn it.  We can't work for it, study for it, take a test for it, pay for it, slave away for it, kill ourselves for it, meet quotas for it, or even believe in it hard enough, with our eyes squinched really, really tight!  Faith in Christ is a free gift from God.  Christ is the One Who paid for it through His death, burial, and resurrection.  All we do is believe, in faith, trusting what God says in His Word is true.

Now, some of us Christians part ways over the process by which this belief is applied to us.  Some Christians, such as many Baptists, say that we "choose" to believe.  Other Christians, such as Presbyterians, believe God chooses us.  The difference is that, for example, Baptists say we have to make a decision to believe in God, whereas Presbyterians say God has already decided, in His infinite sovereignty, those people throughout history who will believe in Him.

Is that getting too theological for you?  Yeah, it gets that way to me too, sometimes.  Not only that, but every single question I've written in this essay I've also asked myself, and not just years ago, when I became a Christian.  Faith would be so much simpler and easier if I had concrete proofs upon which I could base my trust.  Yet God's power and status in our world is so incomprehensible, He wants us to give up the things we can see, touch, and even feel, not relying on them for our faith, but on His Word instead.

God wants us so dependent upon Him that we're willing to live in faith even if you mock me for doing so.  Even if I can't prove what I believe to your satisfaction - or even, sometimes, when I'm languishing in my own doubt.  Why?  Because by trusting in Him, I demonstrate belief in His ability to care for me, which illustrates His supreme authority over every area of life, which confers glory to Him.

During those times when I struggle with unanswered questions and fears about whether this whole Christianity thing is one big mistake on my part, God promises not to reject me.  Having doubts amid faith is not a sin.  I can't be excommunicated for asking questions.  God is not challenged by my shaky grasp of His reality.  His authority is not based on numbers, or memberships, or some other measurement of a customer base.  His sovereignty doesn't depend on how many countries claim to be a "Christian" nation.  God is so supreme, He never instructs us to ridicule or kill people for refusing to believe in Him.  What other belief system is so secure?

Meanwhile, many of us Christians have bought into a market-centered approach to God.  We view our Christianized culture as an affirmation of God's truth, and view the evaporation of that culture with fear.  Perhaps having had that cushion of cultural Christianity did us more harm than good, if we're incapable of expressing to new generations the reasons for why we can't just go with the flow.  Why we're so committed to what you think are stodgy and increasingly unpopular ideas.  And why some of us will probably waiver little from what we claim to be truth, even if our Christianized culture fades completely from our continent.

Some might see that resoluteness as a strength, but unbelievers don't.  They see us as hypocritically hanging on to goofy legends and hollow promises like fussy kindergartners waiting for recess on the first day of school.

Are we weak-hearted and feeble-minded?  Do we need some sort of crutch to fortify our emotional stability?  Is all of this belief in God, Jesus, and the Bible simply another coping mechanism?  A coping mechanism that is infringing on your preferred coping mechanisms?

To the extent that God provides us with certain spiritual "comforts," then perhaps at least some of our faith could be classified as a coping mechanism.  Christians can't deny that they need God's help to sustain their faith, and even I, as I've already admitted, have doubts from time to time about God's claims regarding Himself.  But that's all part of giving up ourselves for God.  It's a concept that people who will never be saved likely will never understand.  And yes, if that sounds like a cop-out, then we'll have to agree that you are entitled to your version of reality.  God hasn't yet dragged anybody - Baptist, Presbyterian, atheist, or otherwise - kicking and screaming into His Kingdom.

God wants our devotion, but He doesn't need it.

Can you say that about your god, even if your god is yourself?

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