Good question...if Christianity is true, why does it need so much defending? And why doesn't God make it clearer?
Draft: Sept 24/2000
Section 4: Two Pushbacks, on "would more hurt"? and "why seek a hidden God anyway?"
Section 5: Practice and Problems in "Seeking"
This is Section 4.
Pushback: "This makes overall sense, Glenn, but what harm would it do if the "suggestive evidence" were a little more explicit, more forceful, or more clear? Wouldn't this accelerate the seeking process? Or at least, surely it couldn't hurt, could it?"
Well, first of all, let's note that if our analysis above is correct, that this could NOT accelerate or help the process at all.
If the learning model applies, then it does no good to give more information than just 'the next lesson' to a student. If I only learned how to factor quadratic equations this morning, it does no good whatsoever to hand me a 'perfectly explicit, persuasive, and lucid' textbook on differential equations...I am just not ready for that, and could make no sense out of it. So, in all cases where learning has to be 'metered' or 'sequential', delivering data early--even lots of it--adds no value to the process of my improvement.
Trainers sometime use the JIT-model for training (Just In Time). The perfect learning experience is where the precise quantity of needed information is delivered at the precise moment of need--not too early (lest it be forgotten or lost in other lessons), not too late (lest a bad habit be learned in its place, and the motivation for 'paying attention' later is gone), not too little (so that the problem is NOT solved and the information discarded due to lack of utility), not too much (so that the good stuff is not discarded with the other stuff when the combined data is too much to comprehend in time to be of use). Personal relationships of intimacy work this way too--intimate disclosure is 'metered' to trust, and to proof of discretion and loyalty--and this learning about God has many earmarks of that kind of a relationship (in addition to the general 'seeker' model character).
But would it do damage?
Actually, it could easily do so, and this is even obvious from the secular realm.
But in the realms of ethics, ideology, and religion--all making claims on allegiance, priorities, value, status, and self-image, the problems can be much more severe:
We are not sure what this verse means specifically, but the two best candidates are given in BBC:
"Perhaps it means not correcting (cf. Mt 7:1–5) those who would not listen (cf. Prov 23:9). Perhaps it means giving only to those who want what one offers, as God does (Mt 7:7–11)
The theme of wisdom provoking a negative response from a hostile is common:
Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, For he will despise the wisdom of your words. (Prov 23.9)
Whoever corrects a mocker invites insult; whoever rebukes a wicked man incurs abuse. Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you (Prov 9.7ff)
In applying this to God, this would mean that additional (premature?) information could result in:
This would accelerate something, of course, but that something would be their hardening--not a good thing for them, or fro those that they have influence/authority over.
Essentially, this is a problem of reflex response to the unknown. If the data I get is too far beyond what I know today (and therefore something that I cannot understand adequately or in proper perspective/balance), then it will essentially confront me with something that I cannot assess for its possible implications on my life, status, safety, etc. As such, our reflex tendency is to reject that unknown , to fear it, and to avoid it in the future, without actually understanding it. [Some people have the self-control to suspend judgment on this issue, but this is not consistent in areas that may appear 'threatening' or 'demanding of our allegiance'.] If this information is something that we will have to learn later anyway, then this early negative experience with it may make it more difficult to learn later. (Plus, there might be 'guilt by association' issues for related truths.)
A variant problem (very common) of this is where I TRY to understand it, but it is beyond my current understanding ability, and so I form a false interpretation of it, and learn that. This results in tons of mistakes downstream, as I try to let this new 'information' inform my overall worldview and understanding of previously learned facts (a familiar experience for bible students!).
When a CEO has an all-employee message to deliver, she/he has a number of different ways of delivering this message: an all-employee meeting, an executive memo, email, transmission via management down the direct-reports chain, etc. Each of these media convey different messages in addition to the actual denotative content of the message.
For example, if the CEO does an all-employee executive memo, on official company letterhead, impeccable style and appearance, and in official executive lingo, the additional message might be one of excellence, dignity, power, prestige. On the other hand, if the CEO does an all-employee email--in a casual style, with perhaps even a deliberate typo or two (I have seen this done, believe me)--the additional message is one of solidarity, I-am-like-you, team-ethos, in-the-trenches-too, speed, warmth. These additional messages may affect how I respond to the denotative content. A casual medium may make the story more 'believable'; the official medium may make the story more 'urgent'.
In the case of God's communication, the overall implication of His "media choices" seems to be that He wanted to communicate His 'soft' approachability, His considerate-of-others ethic, and His coerce-less appeals. The number of numinous and terrifying appearances in the bible are minuscule, compared to the frequency of quiet and simple (but passionate, often) inspiration of middle-class Israelites and the almost 'bland' reflections by the Wise and Poets. Even the few miracles done by the OT prophets are often done in very small settings, and most produce nothing but gratitude as a response (no serious trembling and terror...).
The non-terrifying character of the Incarnation in Jesus--when so much more could have been done(!)--is a highly indicative choice itself. The crowds were astonished at His miracles, but the only individuals who seemed to have experienced terror and fear around Him were those who saw Him up-close (i.e., His disciples, cf. Matt 14.26) and those who knew His true identity fully (i.e., the demons). Compared to angels, who always radiated terror to humans, Jesus muted His presence as He walked among us and His miracles drew people closer instead of caused them to flee in terror, like at Sinai (Hebrews 12:18ff: For you have not come to something that can be touched, to a blazing fire, to darkness, to gloom, 19to a trumpet’s blast, or to a voice that made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. 20For they could not endure the command that was given: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.”, 21Indeed, the sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.” ).
In fact, when He does provide the extraordinary evidence of the Resurrection ("proof", Paul calls it in Acts 17.31), He 'softens' the volume of that by appearing only to the disciples, and having them relay the message to other humans. I think I personally could respond much more calmly, rationally, and non-rashly to a credible fellow human, telling me that he or she had seen a Risen Jesus, than I could personally to a Risen and Radiant Jesus myself! The dynamics involved in stories of altered states of consciousness and in spirit-possession and it extreme mystical and mantic episodes make me wonder how 'un-coerced' or 'free' my choices of God might be in those settings.
I think the omni-directional, core words of Jesus and a balanced portrait of His character, when delivered by a trusted friend whose own life had been transformed by that message, would be the most vivid yet non-terrorizing "confrontation" that a human could have without distorting the "matrix of personal interaction" that God is intent on establishing and interacting within.
If there is a lesson in the media chosen, then it is that God wants us to approach without a level of fear that de-humanizes us and that de-personalizes God. He is looking for heart-to-heart, and His communication forms seem to reflect those priorities.
Given this, too much more or too much more vivid evidences of God might operate against our actual tendency to approach Him.
Pushback: "Amazing! Not only have you now seem to have admitted that God does NOT give us proof, or even unambiguous evidence, but now you try to absolve "god"--and all you apologists--from having to come up with ANY hard data, by turning this into a virtue! What's next--God may WANT me to be an atheist, for my own eternal good?!...Since there is apparently no unambiguous evidence for God's existence (since He's coyly hiding) for me to invest my time in evaluating, what possible motivation can you give me to begin this search you speak of? I hope its not to avoid hell, because it would look pretty cruel if I myself had to seek God to even find out about hell, as well as His undisclosed set of religious rules as criteria for my unwitting punishment, etc..."
Well, that's a rather bad representation of my position here, but I will have to trust the reader to be able to see the difference....
Before I get to the meat of your question--the motive issue--let me point out that the biblical position I am describing here does not absolve anybody of answering sincere and honest questions. What counts as 'hard data' has always been under dispute in such questions, and I have attempted to suggest sources for seekers who have fundamental obstacles to evaluating the Christian faith. God does accept responsibility for meeting seekers where they are, but has a policy of 'avoiding direct bombardment' of hostiles, preferring to let the 'softer' and 'gentler' evidence-elements in life (including non-obnoxious Christian friends, if available) do the pre-work in softening their hearts toward truth.
I do consider some of the data elements I mentioned to be unambiguous, but my point was that none of it was "uncontestable" or "undeniable". [I used a trivial, but actual(!), example, of those who simply counter with a "Don't believe it--There is NO such thing as a free lunch, so this apparently free offer, must be a ruse"]
And, by the way, I personally DO believe that God takes some people through periods of atheism and radical skepticism, just to burn off false-Christianity and dead-religious foundations before being able to really start a seeking God-for-God initiative. The Parable of the Sower/Soils is really clear that some people embrace the Christian message and have emotional upsurges (e.g., joy), but fall because they have no depth; and that some people accept the Christian message but never let the value-priority message transform them into "non-choke-able" lives. God may have to "pluck up and destroy before He can plant and rebuild" (Jeremiah 1.10).
Now, on a motive to seek God--especially for serious doubters/atheists--that might not compromise their intellectual integrity:
In all of the atheist traditions that I am aware of (both eastern and western), the person's consciousness just disintegrates during the pain of dying (assuming it is a conscious death), like animals. For a thinking individual, this dying event would be two-layered: the pain of dying itself, and the simultaneous awareness that the self would cease to exist within a few moments/hours. The prospect of ceasing to live, think, be self-aware, be valued, make a difference, experience family/friends/others, and exercise will.
Humanity has long had a deep, emotional problem with this eventuality. Even though the theory sometimes maintains that once the self dissolved, there would be no pain, for some reason humans have had a real difficulty accepting this no-pain as a 'relief'. Various philosophies in the ancient world worked hard at 'bulking up' emotionally for this experience, but those who held true to it without complaint were few and far between.
I know people who are convinced that this will happen to them, sooner or later, and say 'no problem, I can live with this', but I have noticed that the older and more reflective they get, the more this issue becomes a disquietness in their heart, and the more this disquietness bothers their worldview and peace of mind.
The vast majority of western skeptics would have been raised in cultures over-permeated with religious thought and beliefs, and few would be unaware that some religions believe that death is NOT the cessation of personal consciousness.
If personal consciousness after death is something that is important to you, then I think this would be adequate motive to investigate the claims of those religions that offer a hope of continuity of the soul. [Under this motive, I would point out that many of the eastern faiths, and some of the western ones, offer a variant of immortality of the spirit-substance, but without the memory-continuity and personality-continuity that seems to be the desired end in this motive. I would caution you to prioritize your time around other alternatives, especially initially.]
I personally do not consider this 'fear of dissolution' to be necessarily a "selfish" motive (although not all 'selfish' motives are improper either, by any means), because I believe that this deep disquiet is a 'noble' feedback mechanism, reflecting a metaphysically 'real' complaint again the de-valuation of personness. In other words, the anxiety inside is more related to a moral truth (i.e., "persons have ultimate significance, and loss of one such person is a tragedy that should be protested and grieved") than to self-preservation (although in the case of one's own death, the two obviously coincide, and so distinguishing the two may be difficult). And accordingly, I do not think it 'inconsistent' for an atheist to pursue this 'intuition' that death may itself be an abnormality and atrocity in the Universe.
Although some believe that post-death accountability can be intuited from conscience, it historically has been religious systems that confront us with this claim that 'wrongs will be righted' in the Hereafter.
Most of these systems assert some type of "system-wide moral correction", in which crimes of atrocity and negligence are somehow punished in the next life. Some of these claims are quite severe, and since the belief is widely held down through history, it might be worth a bit of investigation (esp. for the risk-averse among us). It might seem unfair to us for a god to judge people on the basis of criteria that are unknown (non-revealed) to them, of course, but the criteria for this judgment may be more obvious than first appears.
Consider the way a moral judgment works in real life:
Every time I complain about how someone mistreats me (and we do this in matters small and great...), I "sign up for" a moral standard. It is one of the oddities of our moral judgments that they look so "absolute" and feel so "transcendent"--even if we don't believe they are. When I set up a moral standard like that--"one should not do X"--I make implied statements about the universe I would create if I could (some actually verbalize this, in forms like "If I had my way..." or "If I were in charge..."). Two possible constructs of said universe might be "I would make it so people would have no freedom to do X" and "I would make it so such 'wrongs are made right', by having the perps punished/exiled/imprisoned for doing X, and having the victims be recompensed for such crimes".
Strangely enough, the Christian position seems to say "have it your way...", and believes that God actually empowers you to create such a "specialized universe" at your death, but then throws you into that universe of your own design...[Since morality has some common elements, this specialized universe may be shared by others of similar moral persuasion and beliefs.]
Now, if you were a great universe-maker, this might not be so bad, but the problem is that most people aren't. They rashly and repeatedly create a moral universe 'specification' that would be disastrous for them, since the rules they would set up for "violations, small and great" (freedom restriction, exile, confinement, punishment, living in prison conditions of deprivation, coerced transfer of stolen 'goods' for crime X) would also apply to them. And, since they "do X" just like everybody else on the planet (perhaps less intensely, less frequently, less overtly, and more in their wishes than in their actions), they paint themselves into a universe, which looks strangely like hell.
In my opinion, this is the scary thing about the final judgment in the Christian position--there seem to be NO "additional rules" added to those we come up with ourselves. I have pondered and pondered the words of Jesus to this effect:
For with the judgment you use, you will be judged. And with the measure you use, you will be measured (Matt 7.2)
This is part of Jesus' repeated attacks on religious and moral hypocrisy, and shows up in Paul's argument that "moral-minded" people commit structurally identical sins as the flagrant evil-lovers (Rom 2):
Therefore, you have no excuse—every one of you who judges. For when you pass judgment on another person, you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, practice the very same things. 2Now we know that God’s judgment against those who practice such is based on truth. 3So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on those who practice these things and then do them yourself, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?
And our few image-glimpses of the final judgment reflect this by-our-words judgment (Lk 6.37): no one ever seems to complain about unfairness, humans are condemning humans, and crimes against persons are treated as absolute crimes against God.
Of course, most of us would fare poorly in any measurement of our moral consistency(!), and we hold others accountable for matters "great and small", but ourselves only accountable for matters "very great"....and consequently we might not be too excited about the prospects of being confined in our own creations. And, this is the beauty of the mission of Christ to earth--to create a way for us to opt-out of that judgment, and for us to minimize the in-time damage we do to others, and for us to help others feel "okay" to approach humbly the God of Warmth, Color, Music, and Forgiveness.
What this means for our purpose here is that any current "discrepancy" between one's moral judgments and one's actual behavior should prompt one to consider the consequences of such discrepancy. [Remember, even in non-western religions there can still be notions of post-death consequences, e.g. karma.]
The more aware the heart is, the more it seems to be aware of its shortcomings. The more honest we become, the more we see our failures in compassion, action, tenderness, encouragement, gratitude, and affirmation. Some of these failures impact our personal lives disastrously, but some only remind our hearts of what we could be.
Many of us aspire to be better--not richer, not more intellectually superior, not more powerful--just 'better'. More authentic, more genuine, more empathetic, more compassionate, more outraged at atrocity, more intolerant of crimes of neglect, more outspoken against social justice, more confrontational on abuses of religious/ideological arrogance and elitism, more focused on the things that really matter in life, more constructive in dealing with others, gentler with the unruly, less enchanted with glitter and gold, less catering to the opinions and manipulations of others...in other words, more like the Jesus of the Gospels...
There are many, many reverse-success stories in religion, in which religious life produced horrible consequences and behaviors in a person, but there are also stories of spectacular transformation and amazing "achievements" of true humility (not the humility created for appearances or self-justification) and un-forced gentleness.
Those that aspire to such qualities might do well to investigate the claims and experiences of such 'saints', for they began with a first step of a search somewhere too...
Many of those reading this will be familiar with the stories and words of Jesus (skeptics often know their bibles better than the believers they debate with), and will be familiar with the traditional claims of Judeo-Christian thought:
The possibility that this opportunity to personally know and learn and experience this kind of God (a staggering and sobering thought, if real) might be true might prompt one to consider starting this search--especially for those with a sense of wonder at the universe, or with a sense of despair about the human condition.
On to Section Five....