How Can You Believe That Stuff?

Sometimes I get questions from two sides on the same subject.  From non-believing friends it’s: “How can you, as a reasonably intelligent, well educated person, be a Christian.  I mean, do you really believe all that stuff?”  From certain conservative evangelical and fundamentalist friends it’s: “How can you claim to be Christian and buy into intellectual secularism that denies the authority of God’s Word?”

My usual response is to say this will take a while, how much time do you have?  

One thing needs to be dismissed at the outset. Being a Christian doesn’t require an emotional conversion experience where one accepts Jesus as one’s personal lord and savior. I find it a facile formula of low validity. On the other hand a personal experience of exposure to God’s imminent presence in the blinding light of pure love leaves little doubt about God’s reality. Those who have experienced it seldom talk about it. There are a lot of imitators out there. Too many believers are rooted in magical thinking, and juvenile understandings of their religion. There’s no point in getting mixed up with them.

So moving on, for a long time it seemed that God was used to explain mysteries that couldn’t be explained in other ways.  As human knowledge grew through advances in math and science, mysteries became well understood facts that pushed the need for God farther toward the edge until there was no more need for God at all.  At least that’s how the story often goes.  I think it’s wrong.  As human knowledge has probed ever deeper into the way things are, the mystery has deepened, and God appears not at the edges, but in the center.  It’s not the same thing as arguing for intelligent design.  It’s more an argument in favor of processes set into motion by divine intention.  The universe, it turns out, is bursting with fecundity and chance, full of possibilities, successes and failures, with God free to engage or not as God chooses.  It’s not offered as a proof for God, because I have none, but it is offered as proof that human knowledge is in its infancy and utterly incapable of disproving God.  

My denomination, Episcopalian (Anglican), finds no inconsistency between science and faith, and delights in all that we are able to discover.  What is more difficult for the modern mind is the idea of spiritual reality existing with material reality.  It’s a recent phenomenon dating from the expulsion of ignorant superstitions from the rational mind of the Enlightenment.  They needed to be expelled, but they’ve never been erased.  People hang onto them for reasons deeper than ignorance or naivety.  For as long as humans have existed, they have had an awareness of spiritual reality as a part of daily life.  Spiritual reality is a form of being that is present in living things, souls for instance, but just as present in inanimate things, and on its own apart from things.  American Indians have a strong sense of the spiritual that is present in nature.  In Hawaii it’s rude to enter certain places without first honoring the spirit that is part of it.  Some of us are aware of thin places, places that can come into and go out of existence where the separation between the spiritual and material worlds is thin.  One way or another, every culture has an idea of the holy, the spiritual reality that has a special interest in humanity.  To be sure, there is an enormous variety of ways in which the idea has been manifested in religions, gods, and epic mythologies.  The point is that for millennia in every culture, spiritual reality was taken for granted because it was experienced in daily life.  Enlightenment rationality undermined superstitions that needed to go, but the popularity of fantasy entertainment and fads demonstrates that even the most adamant  rationalist can’t avoid having an awareness of the spiritual.  

The Judeo-Christian tradition, of which I am a part, believes God has revealed God’s self through prophets and sages, which for Christians, reached its climax in Jesus, whom we know to be the full presence of God revealed in human form.  For us, it banishes all superstition and fantasy.  Curiously, revelation of divine presence in Jesus had nothing to do with explaining away the mysteries of the world that science can explain through verifiable reasoning, and everything to do with guiding us toward justice, harmony, healing, reconciliation, peace, and a fuller more blessed life for us and for all of creation.  It may be, as the ancient Greek poet Aratus wrote, “in him we live and move and have our being,” but God is not simply the source of being; God is the source of loving care for all creation, you and me included.  

Theology, the philosophical discipline of understanding the relationship between God and creation, seeks to discover first the meaning of truth, and more particularly the truth about good, evil, and all that lies between. And second, if such and such is what we say is true about God, how can human minds find a way to understand it. As St. Anselm said, it’s faith seeking understanding. It can never find the end because what we are able to know is always changing, exposing us to exponential growth in what we don’t know. Speaking for myself, I know that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh; everything else is provisional.

There are Christian leaders who assert they know the absolute truth, and reject any deviation from it.  They’re wrong, and frequently so foolishly wrong they become objects of ridicule who bring disrepute on Christianity as a whole.  Not all of them are conservative fundamentalists.  Some are liberal thinkers who wander off in strange directions pursuing a god they’ve invented for themselves.   But I digress.

The point is that, as a reasonably intelligent and well educated person who has been willing to dig into history, philosophy, theology and the sciences, I am convinced of God’s being, and believe that God is most fully revealed in Jesus, whom I try to follow.  Moreover, I believe that what is spiritual and what is material are part of a whole that is the fabric of the universe.  How other religions may fit into God’s work is unknown to me, but I reject whatever in them is unable to accommodate God’s love for all of creation.

“But,” say my interlocutors, “how could you, how could you?  Can’t you see the injustice and inhuman violence done in Christ’s name throughout the ages?”  Yes, I can see them.  They have been, and continue to be, sinful outrages against everything revealed to us about God through Jesus.  They are outrages humans have and continue to commit against one another in the name of many gods and beliefs because we are arrogant, selfish, greedy, fearful creatures who choose not to listen to God.  Don’t blame God for who we have made ourselves to be.  Pay attention to God as revealed in Jesus.  Undertake the work of divine healing, as best you can, in the part of the world where you are.  You aren’t perfect, so don’t expect to be.  

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