Thursday, May 27, 2010

More on Certainty and a Faith that can Breathe

I have the habit of recycling old thoughts. However, I was thinking about this issue of certainty again the other day. It happened when I was watching a program titled How the Universe was Made on the Discovery channel.

But I noticed this, almost subliminal, change that came over me during the program. I thought it was intellectual, but really it was more emotional. It had to do with my assurance that God was there . . . or not. It wasn’t linear. I mean, it wasn’t like my faith was gradually shaken by the program with it being more unsecured by the end of the program than at the beginning. It was circular. Certain aspects raised doubts and others gave me great confirmation.

The parts that raised doubts, once analyzed, were not logical challenges with facts but more cultural. What I mean is, every time I sit in a room full of really smart people, and they all scoff at the idea of a God, I feel less secure in my faith. It is the same feeling you get when you go to a dinner party and once there, you realize that you are either over or under dressed (in my case it is always being under-dressed). It is mostly about social coercion.

So when I see these scientists, whom I respect and who seem like really nice people, roll their eyes up at the notion that God was behind all of this, I feel a bit less confident. It is subtle. I’m sure the subtleties though, can add up to a major change in someone’s position if they are not careful. For example, a young person going off to college where every professor and every friend hammers them about their silly belief in the God of Christianity . . . and before long, they simply don’t believe anymore.

But, like I said this is usually circular for me. In just a minute or two a concept will come up that gives me great confidence in God once more. In the case of the program, it was when they got back to the big bang and they tried to convince us that all that is, came spontaneously—from nothing. That can never make any sense. The other part that gives me a net sum increase in my confidence in God being there is the fact that the scientists can not live consistently, on a personal level, with what they are saying (when they say there is no God). But not all of them even accepted the notion of a closed—Godless—system. At least one scientist alluded to her belief in God being behind it all.

I heard Hugh Ross (Christian astrophysicists) say last fall that there are many Christian astrophysicists and more in that field than any other scientific discipline. I even have an in-law who is a pastor on Berkley’s campus and he has several astrophysicists in his congregation (they probably don’t show Ken Hamm videos there either).

But this brings me back to this idea of certainty, which is one of the lines in the sand between being an Evangelical and the rest of Christianity (the same that separates the Islamic fundamentalist from other Moslems). That is certainty in all things. Not just in the big things—God being there and Jesus being his son—but in the trivial idiosyncrasies of life. It is highly esteemed that you doubt nothing in that group.

The very first class I went through as a new Christian was what we call “Assurance of Salvation.” Not only was assurance that the Gospel worked for me, but that God was really there. I remember the guy that led me to the Lord said that doubt (about anything) was like breast milk . . . the very first thing you are weaned from as a new Christian. It was clear, Doubt = Sin.

But now I’ve learned to live with my lack of certainty and have found peace with it. But, like I posted a few weeks ago, I’m not an Olive, confused and twisted . . . going in one direction and then another. But once again it comes back to the issue of honesty about the doubt that I think all humans have . . . although it may be buried deeply in some people.

I remember once flying in a non-pressurized plane in Alaska. So we went from sea level to 15,000 feet fairly quickly. I had my luggage with me and the pilot warned my about keeping the caps loose on my water bottle or other containers because the drop in pressure could blow the tops off. He had seen cans of pop explode inside someone’s suitcase.

This started me thinking about healthy faith and how it needs to breathe. It is alive because it is attached to our emotions and our intellect, both which are alive and dynamic. But as an Evangelical I was taught the opposite. That it was very important that I knew the answer to every question, the exact interpretation of every Bible verse, and a fixed doctrinal architecture. Such assurance, conviction and certainty are the marks of a mature Christian . . . so I believed.

So, we teach or little evangelicalites in Awana and other program to memorize and never, ever doubt anything. Right now I’m visualizing the kid preacher in Jesus Camp. So the corner on absolute truth is held only by, not only Christianity, but it is furthered defined as Protestantism and further defined as Evangelicalism and then is further defined as my denomination and is even further defined by the particular views of my local church. Absolute truth is defined so precisely that we become more and more isolated from the rest of the world.

We were also taught to put our faith in this stone box of certainty and sealed. I know that I could never even entertain (except way down deep in most private place) that any of these “truths” not being so. That faith couldn’t breathe. It couldn’t consider other points of view . . . because to do so would be an abomination of the worst kind.

If you stood at the podium at our church or any Evangelical church and said, “I want to see a show of hands of those who still have doubts about God or our church doctrine?” I would be surprised if a single hand (but my own) would go up . . . especially if the speaker said it with great passion. Then the typical pastor would shout, “God said it, I believe it . . . and that settles it!” Does it really? Oh, I can think of a thousand unsettled questions. The first obvious one is “. . . hmm . . . and how do you know what God said?”

This question of knowing has not been limited to Evangelicals. I have a great respect for philosophers (as a genre of professions). However, often they behave like kindergarteners. Throughout history they practice the same cycle over and over. In the philosophers’ study of knowing and doubt (under the heading of epistemology) they have a bipolar swing. They observe one truth about reality. Then they ride that truth to absurdity . . . like a broken down horse racing east to its demise in the Sahara. Then they come back to the opposite view and ride it to its demise in the west.

There were the rationalists, who believed that reason alone could take you to absolute truth every time. Then the Empiricist took that further. They believed that if our senses couldn’t perceive it, then it wasn’t true. Even a kindergartener would know better.

Early childhood educators and psychologists have shown that babies do have an “out of sight, out of mind” view of the world in the beginning (a pure empiricist’s view). Put a shinny ball under a box and they don’t look for it. But, I think it is around age 12 to 16 months, they do start to look for it. So they know if it is not in their senses now, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If the tree falls in the forest it, indeed, makes a sound.

When the two above views came to an impasse they moved into the extreme other direction. Starting with the existentialist view of epistemology, that it takes more than senses to know truth, to the absurdity of the post-modern, where there becomes a total lost of hope for truth. The bipolar part is where they think, “well if I can’t reach 100% certainty 100% of the time using my reason alone, or my senses and reason then flush the whole concept of truth down the john.”

I digress again.

Coming back to the Evangelicals and the emphasis on certainty sealed in an airtight stone box. If it can’t breath, then (like what happened to me a long time ago) with it experiences a rapid decompression, the top is blown entirely off. How many post-Evangelical zombies are they out there . . . those who have lost all hope of knowing anything anymore? I often wonder what happened to the kid preacher from Jesus Camp after his hero, Ted Haggard was caught? That must have caused a rapid decompression of his young world.

How many zombies still stand in the church, not allowing themselves to even consider another point of view? That’s why it is so hard for me to talk to them. I feel that my faith now breathes (I got to this point the hard way). If someone tells me that a homosexual can be a good Christian, I don’t have a gut reaction based on a hard core certainty . . . but I feel open to discuss it and to hear other perspectives. In my previous world this type of openness was always considered a serious fault.

So I end this mental wondering with a praise of doubt . . . good, healthy doubt.


Anonymous said...

I remember once flying in a non-pressurized plane in Alaska. So we went from sea level to 15,000 feet fairly quickly.

Rule-of-thumb: Every 15,000 feet (5000 meters) of altitude, atmospheric pressure drops by half. At "Angels 15", you're literally above half the atmosphere; at "Angels 30" you're above 3/4...

Then the typical pastor would shout, “God said it, I believe it . . . and that settles it!”

Every time I hear that three-liner:
"God Said It;
I Believe It;
That Settles It!" --
Truth in Advertising makes me want to add a fourth:

Does it really? Oh, I can think of a thousand unsettled questions. The first obvious one is “. . . hmm . . . and how do you know what God said?”


AKA "Recite The Party Line, Comrade Thought-Criminal."

Headless Unicorn Guy

shallowfrozenwater said...

if it's any consolation, my hand would go up when the question of doubt is asked in church. it'd go up pretty high too. that doesn't mean that i don't believe because i do but Jesus loved Thomas too.

doubt does not equal sin. it's natural to question and God didn't give us these brains so that we could blindly and blandly follow along.
i'm not automaton and neither are you i suspect.