Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Source: Part 2

I made a few radical claims in part 1. Claims that most of the Christians I know would object to. Things like "We can't know truth." "We can't prove we exist." We can't prove that God exists." I spent an hour or two talking to just such a Christian last weekend, so the objections are fresh in my mind. And after spending that much time talking it through, it seems to me that a lot of the objection comes from assumptions concerning where such thinking could lead a person.

I think Christendom has built up protective philosophical barriers around itself as a preservation reflex. It has done this through doctrine and seminary as potential threats reared their heads, the philosophical under girding was exposed and thrown out like the metaphorical baby with the bathwater. I think our current muddled insistence on Biblical inerrancy and literalism is a perfect example of this procedure. Christendom had established a new apologetic technique based in inferred design as a reaction to the Naturalism that the enlightenment spawned. Then, when higher criticism came on the scene we felt that a non-literal reading of scripture threatened our apologetic styles. (Which it does.) But rather than changing our ridiculous notion that Christians were supposed to prove God via outside evidences, rather than by inward change, we reacted against higher criticism by jumping to the opposite pole. And now we are in the untenable position of trying to prove God with a "perfect" text that we want to prove is perfect because we think God would have wanted it that way. Forget the fact that regarding the scriptures as inerrant is a relatively new idea. Forget the fact that it can not be proven. We must react to anything that threatens the establishment! No need to examine whether or not there are facets of the establishment that are worthy of criticism and need to be discarded…

But over the past couple hundred years those bastions of conservation have been eroded severely. Society at large has become more liberal in its application of spiritual ideas. I was always under the impression that this was 100% bad.

Let me explore the presuppositions involved in that assertion. First, it assumes that what we had, at some prior date, was the best that Christianity has ever had to offer the world. Therefore deviation from that standard is all down hill. Secondly, it assumes that all influences from outside the conceptual walls of Christendom are necessarily corrupting influences. This assumes that God only works through the church. Things like multiculturalism, post-modernism, the secularization of government and other institutions are seen as threats to purity of our organization.

I think the root of this perception is the fact that we have been raised in a Truth paradigm rather than a Belief paradigm. We understand our beliefs to be truths, with a capitol T. I believe this is a grievous mistake. But not for the reasons you may think. Not because I don't believe many of the central tenants of Christianity to be true, but because I've come to the conclusion that the making of such statements is an overstepping of the natural boundaries that God put us into. Let me explain.

It is easy to see that we humans have limitations. We can only jump so high, only lift so much weight, can only be punched a certain amount of times, or tickled for only so long before we wet ourselves. We can't smell as well as dogs can, we can't see as well as hawks can, we can't run as fast as cheetahs can, we can't hear all the frequencies that whales do. Our offspring are soft and weak for a disproportionately long time compared to every other animal species out there. We can remember a lot of things, but very few of us can remember everything. These are all obvious things that we all acknowledge. It's easy to observe these things because we have other creatures that we can compare ourselves to. But when it comes to the things that set us apart from the animals: our critical thinking skills, our creativity, our apprehension of history and future contingencies, etc. I think we have a bit of an ego problem. If I played basketball only with 3rd graders I might start to think I'm a better basketball player than I really am.

My point is that when it comes to these areas, we humans have a tendency to assume we have it all figured out. Or at least we are on the verge of figuring it all out. But a healthy dose of science fiction or fantasy can help us realize just how limited we are in those departments. Gandalf reminds us that we can't light up a cavern with some magic spell or shoot fire balls at Warg. C3-PO reminds us that we can't calculate the odds of surviving a flight through an asteroid belt. Q reminds us that we can't teleport to wherever or whenever we want. Neo reminds us we can't shape the world to our desires. What do these things have to do with God? Well, He blessed us with enough creativity to imagine all sorts of things that we can not do. And realizing what we can't do can tell us a lot about the way God made us and what His expectations are for us.

This is why I claim that we can not know Truth. And let me clarify because my friend demonstrated to me that this statement get's put through the Christian-worldview-filter and goes into your ears as, "There is no truth." And I am NOT saying that. So your cute little comeback, "Is it true that there is no truth?" does not apply to my claim. When I say that we can not know truth, I mean from our perspective, as humans in a physical world stuck in time, with very limited education, experience, comprehension, and a limited data storage and organization faculty. I am claiming that we can believe the Truth. But that since we are obviously flawed creatures, any truth we may believe is subject to our limited and malfunctioning interpretive faculties. To claim that we KNOW the Truth is to deny that our interpretive faculties are limited and fallen. It is to intrinsically claim that we are in a position to be able to perceive all things and make appropriate judgments concerning them. This is vanity.

But the religious person would not put it that way. They would say that the Truth they know is known by them because of revelation. The problem is that they still have to interpret any revelation they receive. Again, they have put themselves in the place of an all-knowing, perfectly perceptive being. To me, that's scary business. That is overstepping your boundaries by a long shot and borders on idolatry. I'm sorry, but you and I are not qualified to be expert witnesses in this case. It would be like calling my autistic sister as an expert witness on cognitive science and interpersonal communication in a trial.

So my claim is that what you and I believe… may be true. But that God did not build us as creatures who could possibly know that what we believe is definitely true. Is Jesus the Way, the Truth, and the Life? I believe He is. I believe it with overwhelming confidence. But my belief does not make it true or false. It has no bearing on the veracity of the claim. My belief is based on testimony from history, revelation from my interpretation of my life and those around me, and a disposition to favor the claim due to my heritage and upbringing. Any and all of those things could mislead. Therefore I do not KNOW that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. But I would be happy to share with anyone why I believe it so strongly.

Let me address a semantic issue here…. I 'know' I'm married. I 'know' I have two kids. I 'know' that I love God. These are all common perceptions that we all have, and I'm not proposing we change our language in everyday life. When I speak of changing from a Truth paradigm to a Belief paradigm, I'm not saying that we have to explain our thought process for every belief we have. When I say that I know I am married, that statement is predicated on the assumption that you and I share a consensus regarding our existence, this physical world, our legal and cultural systems, etc. Because we share a belief in these things it is perfectly acceptable for me to say that I know that I'm married and expect you to know it as well. (Provided you have all the same information I do.) But the fact is that neither of us do know that for certain. We could both be dreaming. I could have multiple personalities. We could be computer simulations.

But because we share a consensus, we can say things like this:

Joh 8:31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples,

Joh 8:32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

I don't believe that Jesus is asking us to overstep our natural limitations here. (Indeed, it would be impossible to do so.) He is speaking to us as we speak to each other. He is telling us that we will know the Truth the same way we know that we exist and know that we are married. (Within our obvious limitations.)

This brings me to another very important point about this Belief paradigm. My Christian friend asked me how I could make any decisions about life when I don't actually 'know' anything. And here is the answer: what we think we know and what we don't think we know is not a binary, on/off system. There is a huge range built in. I know that the capitol of Washington is Olympia. (I've curtailed the possibility that I don't exist or that I'm in a dream or insane or some other option because we have a consensus that that is not the case.) I've driven by it many times. I've visited it. I've seen the capitol building. I'm sure that Olympia is the capital of Washington with 99.999% assuredness. (I'm leaving the .0001% there for the possibility that I don't exist or I'm in a dream.)

But ask me what the capitol of India is… Um… I think it's New Delhi. I'm much less certain. It's not that I don't know. It's that I think I know, but I could be wrong. Now this is a pretty straight forward example. Once you start applying your "knowledge" to the realm of human action, things get complicated real fast. For instance, I know that I would die for my faith. But do I? It turns out I can't see the future or future contingencies. I'm pretty sure I would…. But I honestly can't know until it happens. My wife will love me until my dying day. I really think that is true. But do I KNOW? I have faith in her and her character, but faith is not knowledge. Faith is belief.

Do I know that Napoleon was a French general? Yeah, I know that. And yet, it is conceivable that he was a fictional character fabricated by the French government to bolster their national pride. Maybe history books were changed. Maybe the nations that were devastated by him were fooled into believing it was Napoleon but it was actually a bunch of look-alikes. I never met the guy. And even if I did, I couldn't prove that I wasn't fooled in some manner or another.

So what do we do? Do we, as Henry Ford did, declare that "all history is more or less bunk"? Or do we simply acknowledge that we are dealing with probabilities? I propose the later. Because of the vast array of witnesses, the variety of cultural artifacts produced from his conquests, etc. we can feel free to believe that he was real with a high degree of probability. There is enough consensus for us to state that Napoleon's existence was a fact. But underlying that consensus there is the very slight possibility that we are all wrong. Napoleon scholars don't get hung up on proving his existence. But once you start getting into more detail then his mere existence things get less and less certain. This is an obvious thing that even the most conservative historian acknowledges. How tall was Napoleon? Well there is some dispute about that among scholars because the French and British had different units of measurement. So can we KNOW how tall he was? No. We have to accept a probability. And this, I propose is how we need to approach all of life. Not because I prefer it, (I most certainly do not!) but because every other epistemology seems to be based on false premises regarding our abilities. If you have one that is not, please, please let me know!

The problem with viewing the world through a binary Truth paradigm is that there is no room for shades of understanding. A True or False test can never match the level of subtlety that an essay test provides, no matter how many Ts and Fs there are. I think assessing the world in a binary fashion when we don't have the necessary information is a futile pursuit and it has led to a lot of bad reason and suffering as a result. Since we have not been blessed with the ability to observe any moment and place in time, along with an error-proof interpretive framework, I think it would be best to simply accept that we are awash in a sea of probabilities rather than solid islands of facts in an ocean of falsities.

This is not an easy thing to do. The human mind needs anchors. I think that's why we convince ourselves that we can know certain truths. Before taking the next logical step in a series, we want to be sure that the step we are on now is rock solid. This is an important sequence in logical thinking and I'm not proposing that we abandon it. I just think we need to reinterpret what we mean when we say, "rock solid". Let's change it from, "This is absolutely true!" to "I believe this is absolutely true!" This may seem like a semantic game, but I can testify to the huge difference it has made in my outlook on life. Because when you say, "I believe this to be absolutely true!" you are inviting an inquiry into why you believe such a thing. What that does is provide a clear path back to the roots of your belief system. It's not that the path wasn't there to begin with. Only that it has a KEEP OUT sign at the entrance because your "truths" are unquestioned. Ask a fundamentalist of any religion to question their version of god and you will see what I mean.

We Christians should be especially wary of this problem since we are asking others to completely reevaluate their beliefs and deem them wrong in order to convert to our thinking. It's quite hypocritical to be closed to the very exercise we are insisting that they endeavor. Here, my friend tells me he just feels like this approach is "soft". It's not strong enough. He says we should be bold, and when everything we say is preceded by "I think…" or "I believe…" we are not making a powerful case. I think he's wrong in two ways. First, we should be as bold as our limitations allow. A man would not be considered bold if he stepped in front of a train in an attempt to stop it from running someone over. He would just be foolish and dead. His attempt would be inadequate because of his physical limitations. God did not make him a hundred feet tall and 60 tons. Had God made him that way, the same act would be bold because it would be appropriately within his ability to stop a train.

Well God did not make us all knowing. He didn't make our I.Q. 1,000, or our eyes able to see the spiritual realm. So making assertions as though we were made that way is as futile as the man stepping in front of the train. I propose that rather than living in denial about the limitations God gave us, we accept them. Or even embrace them in a spirit of faith that believes that all of God's decisions are good decisions. That leads me to the second reason I think my friend is wrong about the Belief paradigm being "weak". If we are relying on our powers of persuasion than he would be absolutely correct. If we were peddling a belief system that some guy made up, or selling vacuum cleaners it would be very important to put forth a Truth-based message.

But I believe that as Christians, we don't need to employ conversion tactics or rely on claims that can't be proven. We can make powerful claims of belief. We can be convincing because if what we claim is true, WE aren't the ones winning people over. We don't have to be forceful. God does. If someone doesn't believe what we have to say about Jesus because we say we Believe His story rather than we Know His story, than I think the ball's in God's court on that one. He's the one who didn't give us perfect perception and time traveling abilities.

It's a matter of knowing our place in the big scheme of things. We seem to think we are kings when we are actually stable boys.

So what does my Belief paradigm do for me, and how does it affect my theology? Personally, I think that it has brought me some much needed humility. And with that humility I find peace. The peace of knowing that I don't have to defend an untenable position. God didn't make me to defend Truth. He made me to proclaim my faith. I can't defend Truth because God didn't make me a creature who could know Truth with certainty. He made me as a limited creature that must rely heavily on faith. And because of that, I now have a coherent and consistent world view. I am in the same boat as every other person out there. We are all guessing. All of us. (This however, does not free us from the duty of making the most responsible and best educated guesses that we can.)

I can relate my experience in life, and use logic and reason to explain why I believe what I believe, and leave it up to God to do the rest.

Now, returning to the idea of the Source; that being an idea arrived at through my own logical deduction. (Though I'm sure my biases affected the process to some extent.) The Source of logic and all reality seems like an inevitable entity. It is our only way to stop the infinite regress of physical origins and logic origins. (And I admit that this desire is as much the result of western thinking as it is logical imperative.) It is the Trunk from which all other ideas have their foundation. The problem I find with every religion, is that it purports to have a detailed definition, or description of this Source. But just as I showed with Logic: you can't justify an idea on its own merits or you end up with a circular argument.

My contention is that you can not put any description on the Source with any logical certainty. Why? Because any further details became circular arguments. Their only substantiation can occur by putting them under the authority of the Source. Every attempt to attach a definition to the Source is rationally futile. My friend kept wanting to put Inerrancy on the same level as the Source. This can not logically work. But I think there are some definitions that make an awful lot of sense. These details have to be approached with caution, as they are not as firm as Logic and Nature. With Logic and Nature you have the consensus of nearly every human on the planet. But once you get into defining the Source, all consensus disappears. Is the Source a single, personal entity as in most western religions? Or is it an impersonal force as in most eastern religions. Is the Source single, as Islam and Judaism states, or plural as Hinduism and most nature religions teach? Or is it both, as Trinitarian Christianity claims?

I think there are good cases to be made concerning these issues that rely on Nature and Logic. But I have to acknowledge, that since these arguments for the description of the Source are rooted in systems that the Source validate, they can not be held with as high a probability as the existence of the Source. I'll put it this way: for me personally, I am 99% certain that there is a source of all things. I am 98% certain that logic and nature are suitable frameworks within which we ought to organize our thought processes. The business of my religion and other philosophical ideas fall within the range of 97% down to .0001%.

I think it is crucial to order our beliefs in this way. Because if we insert a specific belief about God above Logic and Nature, and try to stick it into the Source then we have just short-circuited Logic and Reason. We have made a declaration that is not rationally tenable. Here is an example…

"I know that God is loving."

How do you know that?

"If there is a God, He must be loving."

Do you see the lack of logic there? Now… we do come to logical conclusions about the Source, but we can't hold them to the same standards of accuracy that we can hold the existence of the Source to.

Those arguments go more like this:

"I believe that God is loving."

Why do you believe this?

"By my experience and the revelation of scripture."

Why do you believe that your experience and the revelation of scripture are accurate?

"I trust my senses and my use of logic because I can compare their use to those around me. Therefore, I trust that my experience is a fairly accurate tool for creating hypotheses. I acknowledge that my interpretation of my experiences are subject to my worldview and that every worldview has its blind-spots and inherent challenges. (some more than others.) That is why I can not say that I KNOW that God is loving. It's possible that I am misreading the evidence that I observe."

Of course, that is a lot harder to work out than, "I know because it is." But you should be aware that if that is your standard, then your belief is irrational. And if your belief is irrational than it is purely your environment that forms your beliefs. Had you been raised in a Muslim culture then you would still say, "I know because it is"… but what you 'know' would be quite different. (Or do you presume that in that case you would use reason to escape your cultural influences to find the God of Christianity?)

You can still claim that God caused you to know the correct thing, which may very well be the case. But your belief is still irrational because it exists outside the bounds of Logic, Reason and Nature due to its circularity. So if God did cause you to know the correct thing, you are fortunate indeed. Unfortunately, you have no grounds to stand upon if you are in a conversation with someone upon whom God did not grant the correct belief. You can't very well tell them they need to examine their beliefs using Logic when your beliefs are not based on Logic. You can tell them that they need God to grant them the correct belief without the use of Logic though. That would be consistent. Indeed, I think that is the way the majority of Christians become Christians. So I suppose I shouldn't knock it.

In fact, if irrationality is the dominant framework within which most religious thought operates, I fear I'm encroaching in territory upon which I'm not welcome. Do you think there may be a reason that the more educated a person is, the less likely they are to be religious? I think it may have to do with the social climate that religious people cultivate more than intrinsic flaws in the truth claims of the religious systems. In other words, how are people like me supposed to feel welcome into a community that shuns philosophical discourse and pronounces anathema those who don't come to the exact same conclusions that they do? When Reason is short circuited by dogma, and definitions irrationally attached to the Source of Logic there is no room for argument or the building of a better theory.

The thing that bothers me the most about this religious framework is its inconsistency. We (evangelical Christians) start our theology with the circular premise that "the" Bible is inerrant, then we cobble together our doctrine using our best logic and reason. (Nature is left out of the loop.) So we claim our world view is coherent because it utilizes Logic and Reason in its construction, but we ignore the foundation that is, by every technical definition, irrational. (Please not I'm not saying this premise is wrong, but that it is impossible to come to it by reason and logic.) I want consistency! Is that too much to ask for? If you are going to base your beliefs on an irrational premise, fine… do so. But don't expect your next steps that are based in Logic to be credible. And if you are going to insist that your worldview is rational, you are going to have to sacrifice most of your darlings. Most of those things you just accept as True because you think they are. Stop saying they are True and start saying you believe them to be True.

Viola! Consistency! You are now back in the land of Reason and Logic. Your assertions are subject to scrutiny and you are laid bare. Humbled by the power of the system of Logic that God placed you in. You are now in a position where you can have meaningful dialogue with people of other beliefs. Instead of, "This is true!", "No, THIS is true!" we can have, "I believe this is true because of X", "Oh really, well X doesn't make sense to me because of Y". We can approach other humans as equal partners in the quest for Truth rather than adversaries who are tearing down our 'tower of truth'. This is not a blanket acceptance of their claims. It is simply stepping out of our tower to meet with them as equals.

Remember, other religious adherents are just as convinced that God has given them the things they believe as you are. To claim that you are the chosen one and they are misled without a rational argument is just silly. You are just as likely to be the one mislead. YOU could have misinterpreted reality. YOU could have been born into a culture that formed your perceptions in such a way that it is impossible for you to even comprehend Truth. YOU could be the one who is the recipient of a broken, man-made religion. And if you drop the "I'm right because I'm right." circular argument, you should be awed and humbled by these facts.

I have been awed and humbled by these facts. It has caused me to scrutinize my life and my beliefs. And even in that process I'm aware that my limitations prevent me from coming to the perfect conclusion about Truth. I am totally reliant on help from the Source. And if the Source doesn't give that kind of help, well, I'm up a creek without a paddle. But I don't think that the Source is impersonal or unwilling to help those who seek. Why do I think that? Because a creed I was raised with stuck those definitions on the Source for me? Well, I'm sure that is part of it. But I think more than anything else, those creeds and doctrines opened my mind to the possibilities that they sought to affirm.

With that in mind, I'm examining these creeds and doctrines. Or rather, the truths that they claim. Many of them make good logical sense when certain presuppositions are granted. I think the single biggest presupposition my inherited Christendom has is the idea of an inerrant set of scriptures. I've already written about that here. http://joshuaforeman.blogspot.com/2006/11/heterodox-aftershocks-9-how-to-read.html

So I'm not going to get too deep into this issue, except to tie it into this discussion. "The" Bible may very well be inerrant. (I think there are plenty of proofs to the contrary.) But if you hold that 'truth' at the same level you hold the existence of the Source, you are by necessity, holding that belief above Logic, Reason and Nature. And so the inerrancy of scripture becomes an irrational claim (technically speaking) that can't be verified or disproved with Logic. And there, all debate must end. That is not to say that there are not arguments for inerrancy that utilize Logic, but those arguments themselves are, (as far as I've seen) based on premises supported by other circular arguments. "Why do we have a perfect Bible? Because God wanted us to have one. OF COURSE God would want us to have a perfect Bible!" But when that assumption concerning God's plans is questioned we end up in Circle Town.

I just read another article that is attempting to prove that God exists. And here is another shining example in circularity… right near the beginning the author says this: "It certainly is reasonable to suggest that if there is a God, He would make available to us evidence adequate to the task of proving His existence." Now, on a literal level I agree with this statement. It is reasonable to suggest that God would provide us evidence to prove His existence. I also think it's reasonable to suggest otherwise. In fact, I think it makes a whole lot more sense to argue the contrary. The author's contention brings up some serious questions. Like, if God wanted to be proven, why do His people make such a big deal about faith? And if He wanted to be proven, why did He make it so hard to do? He could just appear to everyone personally to prove himself. Is He setting a bar that only those who are good enough or smart enough can clear? Or only those lucky enough to be born into a culture that recognizes Him in the proper way?

I'd like to take a stab at investigating what properties the Source is likely to have. I don't consider them absolute Truths in the way I consider the Source's existence to be True. But I think they are very, very likely. The first property I think It has is an eternal nature. Since, as far as we can tell, time is closely related to matter and energy, the Source of these things must be above and beyond them. Not being subject to time would make the Source eternal.

Another property I speculate would be a singular nature. Because if we have a pantheon we end up with more infinite regress. Who made who made who… I think the Source must be a single entity.

Another attribute would be a personal nature. Without a personality, the Source would have no way to design time/matter/energy and such. To claim that reality is the manifestation of a mindless source is no better than the atheist position. (I imagine this is why so many atheists are sympathetic to Buddhism.) Design requires value judgments. And value judgments require personality to determine what value is and what it is not.

I'm also thinking that the Source must be omnipotent. I suppose it could be possible that the Source could create nature and then denigrate Itself to be subject to it. That is sort of what the incarnation of Christ is. (Within a Trinitarian framework.) But I guess because God is outside time, His subjection to it could not fully consume Him and we have a Christ Who is a first born Son of God.

Omniscient. I think the Source knows everything about everything. It seems conceivable to me that the Source could have created the systems of nature without fully knowing the consequences of them, or without the ability to stay abreast of everything that happens. But because I think It must be outside of time, I think also it is not a stretch for the Source to fully apprehend all things.

I also believe the Source is Love. I think everything He does comes from this trait. Creation, salvation, judgment, wrath… all has a perfect justification that begins and ends in love. Now THIS idea is not come to be observation of Nature, or by logical reasoning. This is idea is a modified version of what I was raised with, and comes from my faith in the trustworthiness of Christian scripture. That faith shapes the way I view and interpret events. And is the only full system of thought that has satisfied my need for consistency. But, as much as I love the idea, and am convinced of it, I recognize that it is a belief that is not provable and can not be rationally claimed to be as certain as the certainty that there is a Source.

According to the ‘Argumentation: The Study of Effective Reasoning’ course I have, the sort of arguments we make with each other when a consensus on a topic is present, it is called a “Commonplace”. Here is the relevant outline:

I. Commonplaces are general categories of inference that usually have proved to be reliable.

  1. They represent beliefs or values that are commonly accepted within a given culture.
  2. The inference is that the connection between evidence and claim is commonly accepted.
  3. The term for this structure of argument is enthymeme. It resembles a syllogism, except that at least one of its premises is drawn from the beliefs or values of a particular audience, rather than from statements that are independently established to be true.

I think it is clear that all religious communication within a particular religion is enthymeme. That is, it requires a consensus regarding things such as authority and proper interpretation. The problem is that when there is consensus, it’s easy to slip into a deductive mode of reasoning rather than the proper inductive mode. (Deductive being the technical form of argument where only one conclusion must follow from the premises.) But these conversations are not deductive simply because we both agree on our premises. Because we could both be wrong about our premises. Let’s say we both believe that a Flying spaghetti monster created the universe. We could make the argument that since it is made of spaghetti, and it existed before the creation of the universe and time, then spaghetti is eternal. And our argument would be totally sound. The trouble of course is in the premises. But we religious folk… well, all folk actually… have a hard time recognizing that all of their premises are unproven. So they buttress their views with the consensus of like minded people and declare themselves to be absolutely right.

I think believers in Christ should be above this sort of immature, ill-formed mode of communication. I think we should be strong enough to recognize our weaknesses. We should be courageous enough to be vulnerable. We should have enough faith to admit that we could be wrong. This is the upside down kingdom. This is humility and love applied directly to our brains. This thinking could lead to relativity. But I believe that when a mind and a heart are directed by Christ they will find the narrow gate.


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