Friday, June 17, 2011

The Trouble with Faith Statements

I want to unpack a concept that I left a bit hazy in my last blog where I said: “So if you ask me if I "accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior", I simply can’t give a yes/no answer. Not because I’m being evasive, but because I respect definitions too much to pretend that my definitions for those words perfectly match yours…”

Most Christians I know would say that this is ridiculous. They think that the idea of “accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior” has a very simple and obvious meaning, so not being able to answer it must mean that I’m being purposefully obtuse or deceitful or have simply “fallen away from the faith”. The main point of that blog was to point out that theological words and concepts are necessarily metaphorical, and thus cannot contain Truth in and of themselves. You cannot say that the statement “Jesus is God” is True, because the word “God” has so many conceptual supporting words (such as Perfect, Omniscient, Loving, Just, etc) all of which have their OWN definitions that need to be established, and all of which are abstract metaphor. Consider this: Can you define “perfect” as it relates to God? I’m sure you can throw some ideas out there. But can you define it in totality? I submit that no one can do such a thing. Therefore when you say that God is perfect you are speaking metaphorically. (I’m using the word “metaphor” very loosely here, as a catch-all word for analogy, abstract concept, simile, and probably a couple other technical thingies.)

In other words when you say God is perfect, you are being somewhat abstract. And that’s ok; it can’t be helped. If we are conceptualizing a Being of this nature it is part of the definition that It can’t be comprehensively described. I think most Christians would agree with this. Very few would say “I completely understand everything there is to know about God.” So when we talk about God, we are talking about a concept, and we are using abstract concepts to build that concept. Omniscient, Loving, and Just can never be adequately nailed down and agreed upon by everyone involved, so there is no solid ‘thing’ we can point to and say THAT is God, in the same way we could point to a piano and say THAT is a piano.

So while it may be True that Jesus is God, the statement ITSELF cannot be True, because it is composed of words that do not have definite meanings. Because meaning for words is predicated on the consensus of a community. If there are only three people in the world, and Bill and Ted say a piano is a musical instrument with keys that strike wires, but Jane says a piano has no keys, only strings that are plucked, then whenever the three talk about pianos the conversation is destined to be imprecise. Just like this illustration, no community of more than one will define words like Love and Justice in exactly the same way. So most theological statements necessarily have different meanings to every person who hears them. The closest we can get to a True statement about the divinity of Jesus would be to say that “Y is X, and Y refers to a constellation of ideas about Who Jesus is/was, and X refers to a constellation of ideas about what God is.” And that’s just not a very satisfying faith statement, is it?

Let’s look at a statement that can be True. “My name is Joshua.” I can point to me, being the object of this statement. I can point to my birth certificate with my name on it and call my parents and witnesses to the veracity of this statement. These words all have very tight definitions because my society has very strong consensus regarding their meanings. There ARE philosophical problems concerning my consciousness belonging to what I perceive to be my body, that that would be a rabbit trail here. Let’s just say on a continuum of strong definitional consensus, “My name is Joshua” is far closer to the Obvious end, and “I accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior” is way over on the non-obvious end. Here’s why.

What does “accept” mean in this context? Does it mean that I mentally sign on a dotted line? Does it mean that I HOPE this is True? Does it mean I believe with no doubts whatsoever? Does it mean that I do certain activities to demonstrate acceptance. All of these are held by some Christians and not others.

Who is Jesus? Is He exactly as described in the canonized books of the Protestant Bible? Is He a historical human who lived a life, 99.999% of which is NOT talked about in the canonized books of the Protestant Bible? How can we say we know Jesus when so much of His life is unknown? Are we basing it on our experience of feelings and intuitions we get about Him? If so, doesn’t that mean He’s going to be quite different to every person?

What is a Lord in this context? Is a Lord someone who gives you rules about living your life? Is it someone you obey because you they will punish you if you disobey? Is it someone you obey because they will reward you for doing so? Is it a role-model that you strive to emulate? Is it someone who vanquishes your enemies? Again, these are all ideas held by many Christians, and some reject some of them while embracing others.

What is a savior in this context? What are we being saved from? From our sins? What are sins? Bad things we do? Bad things we think? Anything that displeases God? Anything that gets between us and God? The result of a literal woman who was tricked by a literal talking snake, so now I am personally cursed and deserve to be tortured forever because of that literal woman a couple thousand years ago and her literal husband who ate literal fruit that was off limits? Saved from my own ego? Saved from fear? Saved from religion? Saved from selfishness? Saved from demons? On and on, you can mix and match all day, and everyone will come up with a different combination that composes their belief about what it means for Jesus to save them.

So if by “Accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior” you mean Accept (believe without any doubt) Jesus (The exact literal guy talked about in the canonized Protestant Bible) as your Lord (A guy you serve so that He won’t torture you but will give you goodies) and Savior (His death made Angry-God forget about the talking snake fooling the woman and man who passed on a curse so you deserve to be tortured forever) … then NO! I do NOT accept Jesus and my Lord and Savior. And I dare say a great many Christians would also denounce this version of the statement for a variety of reasons. But does that mean that I do not “accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior”? No. It means if you attach specific theological concepts that I reject to those words than the MEANING changes.

You may think that you can solve this with some kind of systematic theology, where every concept is broken down into its constituent parts, analyzed, synthesized with every verse in the Bible, re-analyzed, debated, codified and published in a neat package. I used to think this way. I used to really be into systematic theology. It has such a gloss of intelligence and unity, as if an unbroken river of accumulating wisdom has been flowing through the ages. But then I got TOO far into it. Peeked under the surface and found out there’s a huge mass of rusty pipes squirting brownish liquid everywhere. I found out that the unbroken line of reasoning was a bunch of cherry-picked quotes from arcane sources, and if you actually look into what those folks believed there is practically no consensus on ANY issue! It’s a huge mess. And now I think I know why: Because it could not be any other way. Words are simply inadequate for expressing spiritual Truth for the reasons I explained above. And when you have a cacophony of voices throughout the ages, working in the medium of words, all coming with unique perspectives and experiences, the definitions become a jumble. It’s unavoidable.

Yet I have never seen this addressed by any Christian. Every apologist I’ve read takes it as a priori that words can and do adequately convey spiritual meaning like “Jesus is God” just as well as they convey physical meaning like “this is a piano”. I see this as a fundamental flaw in theology and faith statements. If I’m right, (don’t place your bets on THAT!) then that means mankind is in a world of hurt if there is a God that demands precision beliefs in order to save us from eternal torture.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Lelia Rose Foreman said...

Oh, Josh......

9:49 AM  
Blogger Seth Schwiet said...

I think you might find it interesting that much of what you just wrote reads very similarly to parts of Rob Bell's book. While, I think you're right that the book doesn't offer some highly formulaic and rational doctrine (which is nicely refreshing), it does explain why many verses probably don't mean what it is widely accepted that they mean. And the book, in my understanding, definitely does raise the issue of meaning of words, starting early in the book, with many, many questions just like yours. You're questions also read like some writings of George MacDonald:
"
If it be said by any that God does a thing, and the thing seems to me unjust, then either I do not know what the thing is, or God does not do it. The saying cannot mean what it seems to mean, or the saying is not true. If, for instance, it be said that God visits the sins of the fathers on the children, a man who takes visits upon to mean punishes, and the children to mean the innocent children, ought to say, 'Either I do not understand the statement, or the thing is not true, whoever says it.'
"


I am, I guess, mostly curious about your conclusion is. Is it that we can't expect others to understand precisely the concept we're trying to convey when we make a faith statement? if so, should we make them? if so, is there a continuum of meaning between source and recipient? if so, what is the scale based on?

8:51 AM  

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