So ‑‑ where does that leave me? Someone once, after long debate, said to me, "It looks like God wants you to be an atheist." I don't like the answers I've reached, but I seem to be stuck with them.
First, God doesn’t want anybody to be an atheist, regardless of how long a debate is (smile)…YOU could possibly "WANT" to be an atheist--it has numerous points of emotional seduction associated with it in today's western culture--but that's a separate issue than should you (epistemically) be one…
Secondly, judging just from this letter (and the other letters), I honestly don’t think you have (1) dug in the 'right direction' enough, nor (2) approached the decision with eyes-wide-open. It is also possible--although I don’t have any actual data to go on, so its only a cautionary consideration--that (3) your attitude may need revision. Let me thumbnail these for you:
1. Although you say you have read all these Christian apologists, I am not sure you have applied critical thinking to your own position (enough or at all). Your apparent approval of ABC's anti-apologetics writings, your apparent approval of Randian-Objectivism, and the misunderstandings of many of the theological and moral issues discussed above, raise a question in my mind about how self-critical you might be about positions YOU personally have adopted (or that skeptical friends have 'taught' you).
For illustration, take the Randian-Objectivist view…
As you are very much aware yourself, Objectivism is not taken seriously by mainstream philosophical scholarship--but do you know why? Do you know what the strongest objections (by philosophers--not by the chat-room "laity") are? I briefly looked for discussions of it in the scholarly literature and could find NO discussion of it (just like we would find no discussion of Piso-conspiracies or Christ-as-only-myth in serious Classics and History departments, either), nor any citations of, or references to, the authors you mentioned. I then searched the web trying to find SOME comments on it by 'real', academic and published scholars in philosophy, and the pages I found highlighted a number of methodological and substantive errors. I personally cannot form an opinion this quickly as to why it is not taken seriously, but that is beside the point here--do YOU know, in detail, the strongest objections to YOUR position? Can you mount an attack against your belief that would be credible to these philosophers--so that they would say that you represented their position fairly?
Notice that this is NOT a question of 'can you defend Objectivism'--it is a question of 'can you offer a credible REFUTATION of it' also? Then, and only then, can you truly have even the OPTION of making a balanced and two-sided decision about what you should believe. [I should point out, though, that this would only allow you an OPTION of making a correct choice--your actual choice might be made on the basis of OTHER factors altogether (e.g., "all my friends are O's", "it allows me to appeal to things I don’t have to defend", "I don’t want to have to admit I was 'wrong' to my social circle", and other possible less-than-logical motives). But this critical thinking exercise would go a long way in 'forcing you' to at least see 'both sides' more clearly.] This is a rhetorical exercise for you, friend--I wouldn't be able to assess your arguments one way or the other. I don’t know the first thing about it now, and I stopped my daily chanting of the "I swear by my life and by my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of…" creed some 35 years ago…but your heart would be able to…and the way you deal with the 'opposing sides' of the data will be 'noted' by your heart…remember, do not make decisions about which your heart would "rise up and testify against" your honesty and belief-choices…
Likewise for the Christian and skeptic question. You find ABC's arguments persuasive--can you rip them apart, also? Can you find the gaping holes in his arguments? Can you show where his reasoning is highly speculative, where his data weightings are questionable, where his counter-examples are irrelevant, where his background material is unrepresentative of the history and culture of the day? Can you find the passages where his 'bias' and 'bitterness' are most likely to be 'guiding' the argument? Can you find the examples where the generalization or conclusion would require more rigorous thinking before being stated so strongly? Can you find the conclusions that should be 'softened' in scholarly fashion ("the data suggests", "it could not be proven, but could certainly be accepted as plausible", etc), but are not? Can you find the places where more recent data/discoveries and conclusions of modern scholarship should be incorporated into the results, but are not?
But more importantly, can you do the same to YOUR positions, friend?
For example, could YOU have written MY response to your letter(s) YOURSELF? Think about it--could you have 'answered yourself' in the same way I have tried to? Or, if you wrote up your explanation of the events/texts/results/impacts surrounding Jesus and the disciples in the 1st century AD, could you also know where ALL your 'gaping holes' were?
Believe me, I have to do this for EVERY article on the Tank! Before I had the Tank, I posted a couple of 'answers to skeptics' to a national bulletin board and I got my face ripped off--legitimately! I don't often make the same mistake anymore…And, I have posted answers that I quickly had to take down, since my conscience (or my Lord) wouldn't 'let me rest' about what I had written...I try to consider every angle to every question, to make sure (a) I don’t mislead people; (b) don’t get my face ripped off again for stupid mistakes; (c) can sleep with my conscience and intellectual integrity at night; (d) don’t embarrass my beautiful God by negligence, obduracy, or insensitivity; (e) continually grow and learn; and (f) don’t have to re-open the question for a long time…
I know the intellectual challenges to the Christian worldview…I have skeptic friends who ask me on occasion to proof-read their writings, and I try to point out omissions, inaccuracies, misunderstandings, and 'preferred style' (a good ole NIH smile), as well as the 'soft spots' and "prime vulnerabilities" in their opponent's (generally Christian, but not always) position. They could testify that I am cognizant and honest about the 'soft spots' in the traditional Christian worldview…The God of Truth is not afraid of data and honesty…but will hold each of us accountable for how we responded to such data…
In your case, I recommend you don’t let this rest…I recommend that you IMMEDIATELY start surfacing/summarizing the data, logic, experiences, statistics, philosophical arguments that would argue against YOUR arguments. (It is always so much easier to attack someone else's position, than to create and defend your own.) Instead of wasting many more time making lists of 'why Christian arguments are wrong' , start on a list of 'why MY arguments are wrong'…[Or you can start with someone else's statement of position--as long as it represents YOUR position, and you can 'take it personally' when you 'attack it'…the emotional component just might need to be there.]
And if you cannot come up with any 'weaknesses' (real ones) in your position, then I just might have to file you away with those skeptics who see no arguments FOR the faith, and those believers who see no arguments AGAINST the faith…
2. The decision approach.
Here I want to make some observations about methodology, for you to consider when thinking through your decision what to believe--regardless of what the content is:
First, be sure you recognize subjectivity when it is present (as it ALWAYS is). You--like me--use expressions like "don't seem convincing to me", "seem specious", "weak arguments" etc. Just recognize that these evaluations have a high degree of personal-preference, subjectivity, and 'disguised subjectivity' from social and cultural assumptions. [One anthropologist pointed out that 'objectivity' was simply "socially tutored subjectivity". Although this is probably true, not all 'social tutoring' is un-tethered to commitments to essential truth.]
So, when rejecting a pro-Christian argument with the phrase 'seems unconvincing', don't stop there--ask yourself "why not?", "what SPECIFICALLY in the argument is wrong or questionable? And WHY is that questionable or wrong?", and "what changes could be made to the argument to make it more convincing?" and the such like. Do not stop merely at a level-one "I don’t buy it"--ask yourself the hard detail-question: "what specifically is wrong with it…". Identify it, make it explicit (and then think about where YOU might make the same mistake in YOUR argumentation), and finally ask 'under what conditions MIGHT it actually be correct?"
Secondly, you need to be really aware that most high-level beliefs have both a voluntary and an involuntary component. Sometimes, data can be so 'persuasive' to our senses (e.g., geocentrism) that we have to 'work hard at' visualizing and accepting another view (e.g. heliocentrism). Our deepest intuitions may argue against the theory we are evaluating (e.g., heliocentrism, general relativity, quantum indeterminacy), but after a while we may be forced to decide to concede to the more accurate view (without that 'feeling of intuitive confidence'). We have to make a voluntary step to assent to some view (or worldview, as was also implied in the three examples, btw). This is very common stuff--and the subject of much of the philosophy of science for the last 40 years--so its no surprise that it will show up here as well.
However, in matters of 'religion'--dealing with foundational values and transcendental expectations--the stakes can be much higher, and the issue of 'attitude' or 'self-interest' may be an active 'adversary' to us in trying to make good choices here.
The history of science, psychology, and politics are adequate witness to the massive power of the human mind (and the human-in-groups) ability to 'rationalize' the most questionable and/or maleficent choices…We should likewise be "wary of ourselves" in this endeavor. "We have met the enemy, and he is us."…
The biblical data, of course, is completely consistent with our commonplace observations of human 'irrationality':
· People can know the truth yet suppress it until they are no longer aware of it (Rom 1)
· People can deliberately forget things (2 Pet 3.5)
· People can choose to NOT love truth (2 Th 2.10)
· People can choose only beliefs which please them (too numerous to list)
· People can reject outright miracles, such as resurrection (Luke 16 and John 12.9: Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, 11 for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him. )
· People can chose to deliberately propagate deception (deceivers, guile)
· People can lose the ability and even willingness to perceive truth--especially spiritual truth--by repeated rejection, stubbornness, and insensitivity ( They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. [1 Cor 4.18] and For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. [Acts 28.27])
And these are done both by believers and non-believers. Not only do believers sometimes do the 'wishful thinking' thing, but non-believers might do the 'choose only beliefs that do not threaten my sense of self-power or superiority'. In this area of 'personal desires', one must be very eyes-wide-open about motivations.
By themselves--it is important to note--motivations to believe something do not constitute reasons to reject someone's argument. For example, I want to believe that God is good-hearted, but that doesn't give anyone a right to accuse my arguments for that position as not being 'objective' (or of being 'biased'). They would have to demonstrate from my argument WHERE my 'bias' specifically influenced my choices of data, my acceptance of explanatory options, and my weighting of the different data points. I could not be simply dismissed by an outsider without some evidence that my predispositions unduly influenced my reasoning process. [cf. the historiography book by historian Thomas Haskell: Objectivity is Not Neutrality: Explanatory Schemes in History]
However--and this is the point here, friend--I need to ask this question about my own arguments. I need to know that I have not taken the 'easy road' in an argument, or given improper benefit of the doubt to a position, or accepted questionable (by MY standards!) assumptions therein. My heart KNOWS this and my conscience is aware of these influences while they are still explicit and formative in my thinking process. [If I don’t deal with them early, however, they will become unconscious 'habits of mind' and be much more difficult to surface, recognize, and correct.]
In the biblical worldview, intellectual integrity--in spite of our personal desires--will be manifested when we stand before God: Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. (1 Cor 4.5).
" Judaism repeatedly stressed that God knew the hearts of all people (cf. Jer 29:23); some texts even call him “Searcher of Hearts.” As one Jewish wisdom writer expressed it, “Happy is the one whose soul does not accuse him” (Ecclus 14:2)." [BBC]
This was not peculiarly Jewish notion, but was also known in ancient Egypt:
"When the heart, called the persons ka, or double, stands in at judgment, it is also capable of testifying negatively, accusing its owner. Thus chapter 30 [note: in the Book of the Dead], actually a spell to be enclosed in the coffin, intended to aid the person through his ordeal, entreats the heart: 'Rise not up as witness against me'" [HI:FH:13]
Although there is no ultimate accountability in the skeptical worldview for this, intellectual integrity is generally held in high value, so even in that perspective it is important (or at least valued) to 'search your heart' about this issue. At a practical level, this means that even moral and aesthetic notions ("do I like its morality?", and "do I like its beauty?") are secondary considerations to "is it true"…Hopefully, the True will also be the Good, and the Beautiful, but the 'avoid living in an invented fantasyland' ethic generally forces us to consider reality-issues FIRST.
Third, remember that psychological confidence and certainty are NOT directly related to truth-status. Our feelings of confidence can vary with what we ate for supper last night, or a fight with a friend, or bio-chemical depression from the last project at the office. It is sometimes helpful to 'chart' these, though, similar to the way that industry forecasting firms will assign subjective probabilities to 'strategic predictions'. In the computer industry, for example, the Gartner Group will make statements about some future possible technology scenario and then assign it a 'confidence level' from between 1 and 10.
You might try something like that on the various propositions--both pro and con--within any argument you are analyzing. This is, of course, close to the suggestion to assess WHY you find something 'unconvincing' or 'convincing', since these two terms have a psychological component also.
The goal of this step is to help you (a) identify these 'subjective' elements in your decision making process; and (b) identify which conclusions or anti-conclusions need more thinking or investigation.
The question is not "ARE you confident that your beliefs adequately explain why the apostles, who claimed to see post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, did not manifest any OTHER symptoms of psychosis or post-mortem trauma?" but "HOW confident are you that your beliefs adequately explain…?" And then, why did you answer the 'how confident' question at that confidence level?
Fourth, be SURE not to assume that your assumptions are anything more than just that--just "working" assumptions. Half of our difficulty in reasoning comes from not recognizing where we are making assumptions, and that they are indeed only assumptions (sometime a euphemism for 'speculations'…). In your case, you have made various assumptions about 'hard wiring' of values, desire to avoid extinction, etc….Be sure you recognize that these are ONLY assumptions and not proven. You cannot therefore 'use them' as explanatory devices with ANY level of warrant. (They would have to be supported by adequate evidence or logic BEFORE you can introduce them as evidence in another argument.)
For example, you countered some argument that 'your holding to morals is evidence of transcendental morals' with an argument something like 'no, I believe they are simply hardwired in'. This counter-argument is an assumption--a 'belief' that would need some kind of real evidence BEFORE you could use it as evidence itself in an argument. You need to make VERY sure that any argument you use to DISMISS some apologetic point is more than just an assumption. Otherwise, your conclusion is no more that simple assumption/presumption also. (The weak link in the chain thing--gossamer premises lead to gossamer conclusions.)
Fifth, recognize the normal existence of doubt. In keeping with the reality of 'variable' confidence levels, so too will be the reality of doubt--no matter what worldviews we adopt. (The only worldview that can be free of legitimate and/or psychological doubt is that of the ostrich...). There will always be outstanding questions, and more questions behind those. The only way to deal with these is to prioritize your investigations around core, central, or most-implicative questions. Research the Big Ones first--for example, is the resurrection the best (not 'perfect') explanation for the data of the NT, the early church, the current experiences of the believer. If you end up believing this, then objections such as "the resurrection is a contradictory philosophical and anthropological concept and therefore cannot even be discussed/analyzed, much less believed to have actually happened" become moot.
So, recognize that when you finally accept Jesus, you will get the growing psychological experiences of certainty (as believers testify), but you will still have intermittent doubts about various and sundry things. It is important to note, though, that these 'doubts' will most of the time be less than your 'confidence/certainty level' in the reality of the biblical God, in His good-heartedness to you, and in His loyal involvement in your life and welfare. (There are times, however, when His experiential reality may be 'muted' to you, to test your commitment to Him--as He did with Hezekiah in 2 Chrn 32:31. But these are exceptionally rare, and generally after significant masses/periods of experience have been had.) Often, these doubts will be used of God to direct your study, prayer life, and helping others.
The biblical message speaks of the believer's certainty (using the image of an internal "witness"), but this certainty is one that can only be pointed to, when discussing it with others:
"Now some Christian believers might be troubled by the notion that one's apologetic case for Christianity yields only probability rather than certainty. But the fact that Christianity can only be shown to be probably true need not be troubling when two things are kept in mind: first, that we attain no more than probability with respect to almost everything we infer (for example, that smoking contributes to lung cancer or that it is safe to cross the street) without detriment to the depth of our conviction and that even our non-inferred, basic beliefs may not be held with any sort of absolute certainty (for example, my memory belief that I had waffles for breakfast on Monday); and second, that even if we can only show Christianity to be probably true, nevertheless we can on the basis of the Spirit's witness know Christianity to be true with a deep assurance that far outstrips what the evidence in our particular situation might support (think analogously of the person convinced of his innocence even though all the evidence stands against him). To demand logically demonstrative proofs as a pre-condition for making a religious commitment is therefore just being unreasonable. [W. L. Craig, Reasonable Faith]
It is a frustration of the believer to not be able to 'impart' this overwhelming assurance to others in search for it, but the same is true of winetasters, mountain climbers, mystics, and astronauts trying to describe the experiential content of their semi-ecstatic experiences. The believer can only point you to the "probabilities" (between 51% and 99%), and then urge you to decide to accept that conclusion on the basis of non-blind faith--belief that is warranted, but not inescapable.
Over the years it has dawned on my why most choices are 'probabilistic' in nature--to require some level of 'personal choice' and commitment to it, to force us to 'engage' with 'real life'. When I am confronted with the need to select a course of action (including the 'act of believing') and in that specific case the data relevant to a choice is 85% 'for' and 15% 'against', I am forced to make a personal choice. My personal choice reveals many things about me. It might show how 'honest' I was, especially if the choice was something I didn't want or like. It might show how 'humble' I was, if the choice would reverse my previous conclusions about the matter. It might show how 'integrity-oriented' I was, if the choice would be likely to prompt ridicule, censure, and even persecution from my social group. It might show how 'brave' I was, if I had to go outside my 'comfort zone' of my past and into areas in which I had little experience. It might even show how 'teachable' or 'open-minded' I was, if I had to depend on the testimony of others like myself.
Your choices in the past have done this--both shaping and 'displaying' your character. And your choices, as your read this and think about it, will do the same. And the choices you make, from here on, will likewise reveal your heart, and change your heart.
Just be sure you recognize the role of personal choice in this matter…It is NOT a matter of saying the 'data made me do it', and then believing you are 'off the hook'! The data only offers you a set of choices, with some data offering this one and other data offering a different one…
This doesn’t make it a free-for-all, though. DATA is still required to 'offer' a choice, and is still required to 'sort, rank, and weight' the choices. Without SOME evidence, an option should not even be considered. That Jesus turned into a butterfly and flew out of the tomb as they were rolling the stone over the mouth of the cave to close it--as an explanation of the Empty Tomb--is not an option to consider. There is simply no 'data' to support such an 'explanation'.
Data, in a best case scenario, sifts through the possible options, reduces those to the plausible ones, rank orders them based on probabilities and historical connectedness (i.e., how well the historical 'situation' is explained by the various options), and then "presents" them to you. Using this metaphor, data would hand you 2 file folders--one marked "85% confidence" and one marked "15% confidence"--and then it would sit down and see how you responded and how you chose…
So, objectivity NEVER precludes subjectivity--it merely constrains it (hopefully!) and empowers it for engagement in living.
Sixth, focus on the "What" and NOT on the "How" of this stuff. The portrait of the heart and character of Jesus, and His claims about His love and work for you, is the WHAT that you need to spend your time and attention on. Trying to understand the 'how' (e.g. "mechanics") of the resurrection, miracles, healings, exorcisms, bearing the consequences of our moral failures on the Cross, foreknowledge of future events, etc. will get you sidetracked into less-central (and less 'explained' by God) areas of experience. Keep your evaluation on the "That it happened" and "What happened" issues, for these are the ones that must be addressed in establishing a relationship with God.
And even on the 'what happened?' issues, you need to make sure you only focus on basics, and not get lost in over-precision. For example, it is not important to establish a detailed chronology of the last week of Jesus' earthly life, BEFORE accepting as true that He had a Last Supper, went through various trials, and was crucified before the Sabbath began…Do not let yourself get yourself off-track here. The central issue that has to be addressed--before you can truly experience the reality and confidence and peace you are looking for and that God is holding in store for you--is the person and work of the loving Lord…what do you believe about Him?
Seventh, you need to made sure you realize the implications of your search or heuristic model. The biblical view is that God is a person, and therefore has the self-freedom to disclose/reveal Himself or not. This is called a personal-disclosure model, in which data about a person's character is gathered from disclosures they choose to make, instead of perceptual inferences an observer might make from simply watching them. For example, observational models might yield some information that the person is not conscious of (e.g. nervous mannerisms), but this type of data is vastly dwarfed by the amount of data that can ONLY be learned from personal disclosure (e.g. the history, plans, and values of the person).
You currently seem to be working on an 'observer' or 'perception' model, in which you are looking for evidence of God's existence, without actually 'asking' for disclosure or not. I might be mistaken about this--you might already be praying the "God, if you're there, please show me and change/enable me to be able to see" prayer. But, if the biblical model of a conscious and good-hearted God is true, then His disclosure will likely be much more vivid, dense, and personal-content oriented. It would likely be like the disclosure in the portrait, teachings, actions, and example of Jesus…If/when you decide to adopt a personal-disclosure model for finding evidence for God, and begin the "if/show/enable" prayer, then your best "chance" of getting some level of psychological 'confirmation' will be in your encounter with the Lord Jesus of the New Testament. In a disclosure model, one moves to the disclosure media (i.e., symbolic and personal communication streams) as opposed to non-linguistic data such as NDE's.
3. To play it safe, you may need to check yourself for an 'attitude revision' need…
Its not my place to "size you up", nor do I have enough information about you, friend, in these letters to even suggest this as a problem, but I would still encourage you (or anyone) do a self-examination of attitude about your approach.
Certain word-choices and argument-patterns and even sub-themes in your letters have historically been correlated (in my history of interactions with other people) with attitudes of arrogance and superiority in other people. I have seen 'up close' enough arrogant people--both believers and skeptics--to have noticed a correlation/connection between their arrogance and certain things they say, arguments they use, word choices, and assumptions. You share some of these latter themes and word choices with them, so its strictly on the basis of my prior experience with others (and NOT this current experience with you) that I submit this for your consideration.
In fact, in our few email exchanges I have seen very little that would suggest this could be an issue for you, and on the contrary I have seen 'evidence' that would suggest otherwise. But, since pride/elitism/arrogance issues are typically a question of "How much do I have, and to what extent does it block me from accepting truth?" instead of "do I have it or not?", I think it would be wise to at least comment on this--in case you find yourself concerned about this typically 'blind-spot' type of perceptual block…
I personally do not know of anything as effective at 'keeping God away' as arrogance, elitism, or superiority attitudes. These are fundamental blocks to ALL real personal relationships of warmth, intimacy, and community--with humans or with the Lord.
Arrogance creates 'interpersonal distance' between the Ego and the Other. Personal and community relationships depend on reciprocity, mutual respect, leveraging someone else's wisdom (admitting it to be 'better' or at least more useful than yours, for a given situation), appreciation, and honesty about one's limitations and needs. Arrogance, and selfish ambition, are fundamentally destructive to these elemental aspects of human existence. Arrogant elitism and 'holier than thou' attitudes are the grounds for so many of the biblical 'judgments'. The "I am better, and therefore more worthy of pleasure and goods and life and happiness than you" attitudes are the basis of war, racism and bigotry, oppression, crimes of violence, dishonesty/fraud, social injustice, theft, sexual crimes of rape and abuse, and soulless greed. Even the 'I am smarter than you, so I don’t have to take you seriously' attitudes create walls between discussants and students, and can block the exchange of information and softening/widening of more narrow viewpoints (on both sides).
Arrogance has 'silenced' many, many Christian experiences and lives in my opinion. I have seen "I-guess-they-were" believers 'puffed up' by theological knowledge, by legalistic and separatist 'holiness', by 'better than most' asceticism, by fundamentalist and pharisaical 'frenzy of correctness', by exalted experience of 'spectacular' miraculous experiences, even by successful ministries--and they end up calling themselves "ex-Christians" and explaining that God didn’t answer their requests for help because He wasn’t actually there to begin with…I have seen skeptics so superior that not a scrap of light could penetrate the darkness…I have personally fallen into (or 'jumped into', is more like it I suppose) pits of pride that blinded me to some character flaw or error in perspective…
Sometimes the only way to recover from the distance/disharmony created is an "I'm sorry--I apologize", "I was mistaken", "you DO know more about this than I do", "I might be mistaken, since I have less data to work with than you", or "I did wrong"…
The "cure" to arrogance is not in groveling, or false self-deprecation, but in honesty about one's self. It comes from knowing--and living consistently with that knowledge--who one is, what strengths and weaknesses they have, and what contribution they have to make to community.
In the biblical worldview, honestly starts with recognition of two basic facts: we are derivative beings, dependent on God; and we are social beings, interdependent with/on other people.
The first fact means that we are in a less "privileged" epistemic position that God (i.e., He has much greater knowledge, wisdom, and insight about the universe and ourselves than we do--but He is willing to share operationally useful subsets of that information with us, for our good). This creates a presumption that when we disagree with Him (assuming we understand His position on something), it is more likely to be US who are mistaken, than Him…
It also implies that we can leverage God's knowledge, by paying attention to His directives concerning method of learning (e.g., don't try to deal unaided with 'raw' transcendent experiences), presuppositions of learning (e.g., creation as a cohesive and rationally unified whole--the principle that launched and grounded modern science, historically speaking), goals of learning (building up one another--a community wellness goal, plus the pleasure and appreciation associated with discovering of beauty and elegance built-into the universe), and limits of learning (e.g., the specific detailed causes behind most human events).
Just as humility (nothing more than honesty, for a derivative being of course) was the first-step in voicing our 'disagreement' with God about moral repugnancies, so too it will be in 'questions' or 'disagreements' with God about epistemic matters. The fact that I cannot understand the mechanics of how a spirit can speak to a human soul through dreams and trancelike states, does not in any way 'negate' the fact that: (a) He claims to have done this in the bible in numerous occasions; and (b) cultural anthropology documents this experience in the vast majority of modern and ancient cultures. [This presupposes, of course, that I can actually determine the content of His claims, upon which to practice said humility. ]
The second fact means that we are both contributors to, and recipients of, community knowledge. For example, the vast majority of facts and thinking 'procedures' (and assumptions about life and the universe) we know were taught us (or modeled before us) by others. The amount of individually-generated 'new' knowledge we possess individually is almost trivial; but, when we contribute this small amount of insight or knowledge into the community 'pool', the result is organic growth in overall human knowledge. This creates the need for appropriate responses to community-shared knowledge, including humility to others with better knowledge in some areas than us, respect for everyone--since all have SOMETHING to contribute, 'discerning' trust or an open-mindedness toward the testimony of contributing and model community-members, and thankfulness and appreciation to those who have helped us in individual ways.
Although a cordial skepticism is biblically enjoined upon us, a wholesale 'guilty until proven innocent' assumption is as equally fallacious as is "I believe everything"…it is the middle ground that we seek.
Imagine this kind of conversation with the Apostle Peter, back in Acts 6:
(An adult Glenn enters, stage right, Apostles are helping serve food to the needy of Jerusalem at tables set up in an area around the Temple)
Glenn? Hey, Glenn--over here! Its me, Peter…
Hey, man, what are you doing? I haven’t seen you in a couple of years-- I've been traveling in Italy and surroundings for a while…last I saw you, you were running a thriving fishing business up in Galilee
You haven’t heard about what's been going on here?! Man, have I got a story and some good news for you! (Peter directs two fellows to bring in the next food basket, just arriving from another Jewish priest). The short version is "God has visited His people"--finally! The Messiah appeared, and he was so much more than we expected! He blew us away with His teachings, His love, His integrity, His compassion, and to top it all off--He didn’t kiss up to the religious leaders! Of course, they ram-rodded a crucifixion through Pilate and killed the Prince of Life, but --just as promised--God raised Him from the dead! It was incredible! And now, He is Lord of history and we all are trying to let everybody know so everybody can have a part in the New Future He will be ushering in (as soon as we get the message out to everybody). Glenn, you GOTTA join us in this--this is finally the REAL thing! This was finally something different and from God himself--this messiah wasn’t some 'out in the wilderness weirdo' or some Emperor-wannabee zealot…You should have seen Him weep over Jerusalem--I never realized how much God cared for us stubborn, stiff-necked people before that…This was the One, come join us!
Whoa, whoa, whoa Peter…you musta have fallen out the boat one too many times, friend…people don't rise from the dead, last time I checked…you KNOW I cant believe a 'fish story' like that, buddy!
But its true, man, and he supplied us with 'extraordinary evidence' to prove it to us: we all (he gestures to the people helping put the food out) saw him after He rose! It took us a while to "get it" (if you knew the history, glenn, you would say your customary 'what ELSE is new, peter?!"), because we were so skeptical, but finally we were just overwhelmed by the experiences. We didn’t believe the women, but they were right. Thomas didn’t believe us, but we were right. Every time we began to doubt again, He would appear again! Its like He knew how slow we were…
Oh--post-resurrection appearances, right? I get it now…You are just creating these stories of 'divine appearances and signs' to honor you dead leader, like they teach students to do for Greco-Roman rulers, like Alexander and Augustus, right?
Gross, no! Why in the world would we want to drag the Pure One down to the level of those guys! He consistently contrasted His Servant-Leadership with their pompous, conquest-oriented, self-aggrandizing, and elitist agendas. The LAST THING He would want us to do is 'make up stories' to make Him look like a competing Emperor! These were real events, Glenn…believe me!
[Glenn rubs his chin, considering this] Good point--nobody likes an Emperor…But I would assume, in your efforts to reach and help the common person, that you DID sorta make up a few miracle stories to make Jesus look a little like those traveling miracle-workers? That would probably expand your 'influence', wouldn’t it? You DID make up some good 'copy cat' miracles, I hope…
Are you kidding? What do I look like to you--A GENTILE?! Jesus belongs to us Jews, and his miracles were related to the Tanaak/OT promises--not those fame-hungry mendicants! Besides, we are trying to reach the Jews here, about the Son of David. If we made up miracles to make Jesus look like one of those Hellenistic divine-guys, do you know how fast the Jews would drop us?--like a hot matzo ball! No, not only did he NOT do stupid stuff like most of those dudes, but it would really impact our ability to help our countrymen find the true Messiah and find the freedom of heart they long for. He really DID these things, glenn…don’t you believe me?
[Glenn rubs his chin, considering this, and looking a bit more confused] Hmmm…I see your point about the Gentile-Jew problem…So, instead, I assume you invented Rabbi-type stories to make Jesus look like those "Charismatic Jewish Holy Men"? Your making Jesus look sorta like a kosher miracle man, eh?
[Peter looks a little exasperated, and shakes his head] Huh? The only 'charismatic holy men' WE Jews have are a couple of one-miracle-wonder rain-making guys…and that’s the only major miracle Jesus DIDN’T do…He seemed to be more interested in stopping the reign of evil in our hearts, than in making rain for the earth…No, he was DEFINITELY different from those guys too…But you're forgetting that I am talking about a BIG miracle here--His own resurrection--By himself, mind you--NO ONE raised Him from the dead, except himself! Think about that one--NO ONE ever has claimed to be able to do that in advance, much less pulled it off physically, and then rubbed it in our faces!!!!
Peter! I refuse to accept that a miracle occurred here, in spite of your testimony. People see ghosts all the time back in Italy…and especially after somebody they love dies…you just want to believe it so hard, your body just generates these 'visions' of your friend and leader…isn’t that what probably happened, when you think about it?
Not even close, Glenn…This 'ghost' sat down and ate with us--as a group! He even cooked one of the meals himself for us! Believe me, we have vivid imaginations (except perhaps Matthew the tax-collector guy over there…[laffs, along with Matthew who has heard the remark]), but our imaginations are not 'calorically vivid'! We all saw the same thing, multiple times, in different settings, and in different moods. Almost NONE of the appearances were to individuals all alone. He taught us stuff. We touched Him, for goodness sake! …Glenn, you know me--one doesn’t run a successful commercial fishing business, in the metropolitan area, without being HIGHLY skeptical of people, deals, and credit…You know me--I just don't bite at every fishing line thrown to me…This was real--just like we had been promised in the scriptures and by Jesus as He walked around in our midst for three years.
This is too hard to believe, Peter--you guys must have finally gone insane from the trauma and stress.
Insane?! I cannot believe you would accuse me of that, Glenn. Do I look insane to you?! Here I am, with my buddies, administering compassionate and practical relief to needy people, managing to schedule teaching times and group prayer, speaking plainly and persuasively to priests and people alike. All of us here no doubt seem a little different because of our joy, peace, and freedom from fear of death, but do any of us really look crazy to you? Or our lives less-than-sane? Come on, glenn, you're getting a little strange yourself with that accusation…Do we act and speak and live in public like the Kooks and Quacks we get through here all the time? Surely you see a qualitative difference in our lives and even the stories I have been telling you about for the last few minutes…
Hmm, no, I guess you really DON’T look insane, but since I cannot accept that this really happened, I still cannot believe you…if you're not deluded, then you must be making this all up for some reason…I guess you got tired of fishing, and wanted to get on the 'religious dole' I guess…
(Something seems to 'dawn' on Glenn's face, and he leans over and whispers into Peter's ear: "Oh…I get it! I've got to hand it to you…that's a pretty convincing story--great scam! Brilliantly clever, man! There's a guy in Rome with an embalmed Centaur, raking the money in, but that's nothing compared to what you can make in the religious racket, I hear…I knew you guys were clever businessmen (wasn’t John even the official fish vendor for the High Priest?), but this scam beats even some of the chain-scroll scams I saw in Sicily! How much money are you guys pulling in off this deal?")
Oh, glenn (sigh)…you still don’t get it, do you…we don't get ANYTHING from this! [Pauses, reflectively] Okay, I lied--we DO get BEATINGS and THREATS and are ostracized from various community functions. Oh, and I forgot, we also get to live in fear of the priests or Pharisees deciding to ask Herod or Pilate to kill us like they did Jesus…Since one governor beheaded John the Baptist a while back--oh, you didn’t hear about that?--we figure either James, John, or myself are next to go…So, if "pulling in" includes loss of job, constant threats and fear, having to work our fingers to the bone in relief and teaching work, having books about Jesus being written--with a whole lot of 'unflattering' personal stuff about US thrown in (Guess who gets called 'Satan' in one of the more vivid episodes!), occasional beatings and imprisonments, probable exile soon, probably death and martyrdom, ridicule by the rulers, and that kind of stuff, then we are really doing well! But if you're talking about money, all of that goes to the poor (like these precious widows and orphans), and if you're talking about luxury, nobody seems to 'donate' any of that…and if you're talking about "fame"--as in being beaten in public and soon to be appearing on 'Most Wanted' lists, then we get our fair share of that…but "fame" and one denarius will buy you a one-denarius cup of coffee, I hear…NO, actually we are doing this because we saw Him--He taught us how to love, He died for us out of love, He showed himself to us alive before going back to heaven--out of love, and we love Him now and we love one another now…and we have never been more honest, more sane, more free, more 'together', and less 'scam-y' than we are today…Maybe we used to be the 'ghosts', and now we are finally real and alive…
(Peter shakes his head sadly, with a puzzled, almost hurt look on his face) Glenn, in the few minutes we have been talking here, you have accused me (and OUR trusted mutual friends, remember!) of being more confused than ordinary humans about our own sensations and experiences--as individuals and as a group, you have accused us of being insane, and finally accused us of being despicable crooks. And WE have not given you a single reason by our behavior and demeanor to do so…you are basing all your condemnations of us, based on peripheral factors unrelated to us and to our actual situations. We have all seen the pathologically credulous, but not the majority of people are such. We have all seen lunatics, but most people are not such. We have all been taken in by charlatans, but most people are not such. Why would you apply such minority faults to us here, who manifest none of the other symptoms, and have none of the 'inducements' of such people? Why are we guilty--because of others--until proven innocent, and why is even innocence impossible for us to attain with you--because of the others false-ones again?! Why would you let the falsehoods of other rob YOU of accepting the real truth, when you have finally found it?
(Glenn shakes his head sadly) Because Kooks and Quacks are everywhere--there have been tons of sightings of 'resurrected leaders'--why would yours be any different?
Glenn, think about what I have said--multiple people, multiple senses, multiple settings, corroborative experience, material body, food consumption, handling cooking gear--where have you EVER heard any story like this, with this much data?
-to ONE guy, no groups, no contact, came from heaven…
-in a night vision, alone, once…no groups, no contact, 'gliding down from heaven'?
-one uncertain vision, to Scipio alone, no material contact
-nope, went straight to heaven--didn’t even actually die, much less was seen in between the two!
There's just nothing like this, friend--the amount of extraordinary evidence is specifically to help us finally realize that God really DID break into history to rescue and salvage and free us!
Why is your heart suddenly so closed against hearing our honest testimony? What has happened to your heart, which used to be open to learning? You were always cautious--like us all--but when truth presented itself, no matter from what source--you delighted in truth…we learned a lot from one another growing up…what happened to you?
I don’t know (shaking his head)…somewhere along the way, I stopped trusting all those people who helped me get to where I am today--and started trusting only myself…even though most of what I know came from other people…doesn't make a lot of sense, I guess, does it?
Nah, it doesn’t…although I myself tried that before, and actually tried lecturing the Messiah on how to act a couple of times…ouch…not really proud of that story…but only trusting yourself closes so many doors to beauty and warmth and new vistas--plus, if you have to do ALL the work yourself, it's gonna get very, very tiring…and without ANY help, I suspect you wont even be able to find out very much at all about life, yourself, freedom, post-mortem experiences and such…what a lonely and wearisome way to walk, glenn…no wonder you look so burdened…
Hey, I have an idea…why don't you think about one of the precious promises Jesus made to us when he was on earth--maybe you'll find a reason to trust HIM now because of how it reads:
"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
The point of this illustration is that we need to make sure we are authentically human when we deal with testimony. We neither need to be irresponsibly gullible, nor close-minded and insulting to others…Our arrogance toward others may lead to "speculative cynicism"…Our hearts must be open and humble and learning-enabled, or we NEVER will be able to see God and His whispers of love and calm…
I cannot urge you enough to make dead sure this is NOT a barrier to finding what you seek, friend…and to do a pride-check frequently in this process…
This is a difficult area to assess, though, and I am having difficulty developing suggestions for you. A couple come to mind, but some involve more work than others:
1. The first thing I recommend you do is get a copy of BOTH The Singer (Calvin Miller) and The Beggar King (Dan Hamilton). The former is in print, but the second is not. Both are allegory-type books, each taking no more than an afternoon to read. Your task here is to read the books and check your heart to see if you feel morally superior to the portraits of our Lord gleaned from the books. If you find yourself continually disagreeing with His choices and values, then you probably have an arrogance problem that will stop you from finding God's truth.
2. Another kind of thought-experiment would be to reflect upon the authority of the Creator over you. Even with our relative independence of choice and experience, any Creator could have some kind of authority over us, and would certainly have at least some freedom in what he/she/it/they did to/with us (especially if we were placed in community contexts with obligations to be cooperative, reasonable, non-destructive, etc.). God's freedom would look like 'authority' to us, and might prompt negative emotional responses of angry denial ("you don’t have ANY freedom in relation to me!") or of outright 'rebellion' ("I don’t care--I am NOT going to consider your claims on me at all--I will make my choices ONLY on the basis of my personal perspectives and information, whether it's self-destructive or not") or even of demonic-like destructive choices ("I am going to resist your authority everywhere I know it exists--and I will use all my relative independence to thwart all your efforts to grow people into trusting, loving, humble, responsible, respectful, considerate, and cooperative agents"). There are milder forms of these, of course, and more 'respectable' ones, but one MIGHT be able to identify superiority/arrogance issues in the heart, by thinking about God's authority over us. If our heart blanches or quails or swells up with angry hubris toward God when we think of the possibility of our accountability before a Maker, then this might indicate a problem here.
3. Closely related to this arrogance-superiority issue, would be our emotional response to the fact of our moral failures before God. If, as we discussed above, God was the source of our moral sensitivities and was also the 'standard' by which moral perfection was correctly judged, then we--as moral agents--would likely find ourselves in situations in which our moral choices were out-of-synch with what was pure and beautiful. We could easily fail to do what is good, or even do what is anti-good. And honesty would require us to be able to admit before our God and our fellows that we had erred (sometimes unintentionally, but sometimes with selfish and/or destructive intent). In biblical terms, this means admitting to God (and on some occasions, to others) that we had 'sinned', that we had committed or participated in some act that was contrary to the good of the universe/community, and/or to the health of the interpersonal relationships important to our full experience of life (i.e., with God, other people, and ourselves). An arrogant heart is not going to be "happy" about having to admit culpability to ANYONE--especially a morally-perfect God! In spite of the fact that humans consistently and universally "commit sin"(!), we do NOT like to admit it to ourselves, admit it to others, or admit it to God. We mutter apologies, we write "I am sorry" notes instead of doing it face-to-face, we 'soften' our admissions of true guilt to less 'direct' versions--"I am sorry IF you took my actions in a negative way…" So, in this thought-experiment, think back about the most morally inappropriate thing you have EVER done--something ANY moral standard would likely judge as destructive of good. Then, visualize yourself admitting this to a perfect (yet warm-hearted) God, and then apologizing to God for the damage done in history to others of His loving. If this provokes emotional responses of "not going there.." or "forgiveness is an outdated or barbaric notion" or "I could never do that, since God himself is probably no better than me…blah, blah, blah", then there is likely an arrogance issue to be dealt with. [This assumes, of course, that you have removed most of the grounds for substantive moral objections to God (e.g. biblical situations, existence of various types of evil in the world, tolerance of evil agents), as we discussed above. Or, alternatively, you could proceed on the philosophical basis of God as the definition of the Good and therefore morally superior by definition.] Arrogant folks normally can't stomach the word 'forgiveness' (except where 'forgiving others' is way to assert their elitist self-image and maintain distance from the 'forgivee'…such a contrast from the Jesus who came to earth in solidarity with us, to "bear our sin" for us, so that the distance between us and God and our fellow humans could be completely removed…
4. Perhaps another method would be in the personal limitations category. In this method, you would make a list of all the areas of your life that you think you need help in. (This is not a list of 'mistakes' you have made, unless they are recurring and seemingly out of control.) This might include things like:
· removal of fear of death
· greater warmth toward people
· less patronizing tone/attitudes
· greater outreach and service to the needy
· greater humility of spirit
· 'slower to anger'
· more trusting of others
· more ruthless honesty
· assessing BOTH sides of an argument with the same rigor
· applying the same moral standards of judgment to YOURSELF, that you apply to OTHERS
· better focus on the core values of life
· ability to make people feel more comfortable around me
· greater ethics in work output and quality
· less reluctant cooperation with authority
· giving people the benefit-of-doubt more frequently (when NOT clearly contraindicated)
· any compulsions and/or addictions you are aware of
· any habits/patterns you have that tend to kill, trivialize, or 'sour' personal relationships
· [add your own items, from a session of honest self-appraisal]
Then, rank them in terms of severity and stubbornness, ranging from 'out of control/I am helpless and cannot beat this' to 'optional, but something I have always wanted to be better at'. Then you visualize admitting those needs before an all-seeing God, and asking God for freedom and release in those areas you cannot conquer without the help of another person/Person. Can you visualize asking God for help, without feeling resentment or anger or petulance? Do you sense your heart revolting against the idea, or does your heart almost yearn to open itself up to His non-judgmental help? In this process of admitting "inferiority" to your Creator, does your heart feel the calm humility of honesty, or does it agitate and want to throw a temper tantrum?
5. Another way to 'inspect your attitude' is to ponder the following facts, and see if your heart responds with anger or feels that wonderfully superior feeling of 'insult':
· God is Himself free, and a person. He doesn't have to EVER reveal Himself to you--especially if you are a demanding, tantrum-throwing soul. Like humans, personal disclosure is a choice, and we often choose NOT to share ourselves with people who are abusive, belligerent, demanding, etc…
· If you set all kinds of criteria that God has to 'meet' in order to satisfy YOUR definitions of what is 'acceptable', God has perfect freedom to walk away from the deal. If you try to set Terms & Conditions that He considers unacceptable (i.e., destructive to you and others--you cannot hurt Him per se), He doesn’t have to commit or co-operate.
· If you set ultimatums and hoops that God has got to jump through, He may decide that it is NOT in your best interest for Him to start the relationship that way. The relationship will NEVER be a peer-to-peer, though it will be heart-to-heart. If He knows you will always be trying to manipulate or maneuver God around--and probably others made in His image--He might easily back out and wait for you to get more 'real' and 'honest' first.
6. A final method might be to use the assessments of others, although this is more easily manipulated and/or rationalized. In this method, you pick 10-20 people who know you best/longest, or have observed you for long periods. Be sure to include any long-term business associates with whom you have had many, many interactions over the years, and especially any employees that you have managed. Then, you make a soul-searching guess as to how each of these people would "rate you" in terms of arrogance. Use a scale of "0- the most humble and unassuming human ever alive" and "10-thinks he IS the BEST/ONLY human ever alive, and treats us sub-humans accordingly". Don't actually ASK them to do this, since the worse your score is ACTUALLY, the less likely they are to tell you the truth to your face…This has its own set of problems, as you can imagine, since the prideful will likely 'inflate' their ratings in the eyes of others…["When the College Board asked high school seniors to compare themselves with others their own ages, 60 percent reported themselves better than average in athletic ability, only 6 percent below average. In leadership ability 70 percent rated themselves above average, 2 percent below average. In ability to get along with others, zero percent of the 829,000 students who responded rated themselves below average, while 60 percent saw themselves in the top 10 percent and 25 percent put themselves in the top 1 percent. If Elizabeth Barrett Browning were still writing she would perhaps rhapsodize, 'How do I love me? Let me count the ways.'", CS:PTEF:130f]. But even though this can be easily rationalized ("he would rate me as arrogant, because he is so stupid that he wouldn't recognize humility if it came up and bit him on the…"), at more honest moments it might be useful in conjunction with the other methods above.
Okay, so what I am suggesting here is to :
1. keep a close watch on your emotional openness to, and ability to deal with, being a derivative and dependent 'creature',
2. try to balance the scales by attempting to find the weaknesses in your own arguments, evidence, positions; and ;
3. face up to the reality that ANY decision will involve an element of personal choice, and will accordingly reveal aspects of your character, values, and honesty before God and the universe.