Marc Chagall, White Crucifixion, 1938. This is my favorite image that reflects Jesus’ love for the world. Chagall was Jewish (note Jesus’ prayer shawl) and the background images show scenes form the Holocaust. Image source: The Art Institute of Chicago
For those of you who are new to psnt.net, welcome. For those of you who are lurkers, you may be well aware of the fine discussions that have been going on within our comment pages. The whole atheism-negative theology thing started a week or so ago and is still going strong. I would like to add a bit more to the ongoing fun by saying something about how people come to believe in God. Or at least how I came to believe.
First, a quote from Chris, who is skeptical about the reality of God. This was addressed to me.
Given the lack of any… standard by which the ‘immaterial’ or the ‘supernatural’ can be judged, it is, therefore, only by *presupposing* that there is such a thing (as ‘God’, as the ‘immaterial’, as the ‘supernatural’, etc, whatever one might suppose, in practice, that these words might actually refer to) that one can claim to speak meaningfully about such a thing. Any such claim is a mere assertion, however.
To anyone who does not share your presuppositions, you are speaking merely gobbledegook. It just happens to be a cultural artifact that, in our civilisation, theistic roots run deep; as such, the nonsensical nature of God-speak is not clearly apparent, even to most of those who do not ‘believe’ in ‘God’.
The question, as always, has to be, if you claim to ‘know’ something, please tell the rest of us how it is that you happened to come by that knowledge.
I’m deeply skeptical about the power of reason to effect change outside of the sciences.
At some point in my life I ceased to fear arguments, no matter how well-reasoned. Maybe it began in eleventh grade, in Fr. McCaffrey’s philosophy class. He took us through all the well-worn arguments for the existence of God: the ontological, the cosmological, the teleological. Also arguments against the existence of any God, given the wretched state of affairs down here on Earth, who could simultaneously be omniscient, omnipotent, and all-loving. I don’t remember the details. He must have presented other arguments of all kinds, but I don’t remember them either. What I do remember are his questions, which cut through all the higher philosophical claptrap and jangled our nerves. He would look directly into our eyes and ask in his soft Irish accent, Who are you? Do you believe in God? Why? Do you believe in God because your mother believes in God? Why do you believe God loves you? Why? Do you believe God loves you because your priest told you so? And so on. These were not cheap shots. He was serious. He loved us, he loved his job, and his questions were troubling. Some students wept. At which point he would offer Kleenexes. It was in Fr. McCaffrey’s class that I began to see that all true education is intensely personal.
Good questions from a loving teacher are powerful. Better than pure reason for waking us up. When was the last time (outside of scientific work) that you let reason dictate your deep beliefs? Why do you believe what you believe? Is it because you stood aloof above the fray of competing “world views” and let reason eliminate all but the best? Like a cautious consumer? Or do you believe what you believe because you once loved someone or hated someone? Because someone once loved you or hated you?
I am not a Christian because it “makes sense” or because someone sat down and diagrammed it for me. I am a Christian because I have been loved deeply and unconditionally by Christians. Some of them — like Fr. McCaffrey — troubled me with hard questions. But all of them loved me when I did not love them. And I have come to believe, over many years and through many struggles, intellectual and otherwise, that the God of these Christians — that is, God as incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth — is real and alive and even loves us. Despite the pain and weariness of life, despite the very real evil in the world, despite my moods and frustrations and endless head games.
I did not presuppose God or God’s love, believe me. These, especially the latter, are among the least intuitive realities imaginable.
I grew up in a church and in a tradition that I have come to re-embrace, and it is always easy for others to suggest that I have simply reverted to the theism of my youth and the “theism of the civilization” (?) out of insecurity (Chris did not say this, granted, but IMO it was there as subtext). But that kind of psychoanalysis removes any possible meaning from what any of us says, because it would be highly disingenuous to claim that skeptics and freethinkers are not part of a long tradition themselves, yet I would never claim that they are just unwittingly clinging to that tradition. We must take each other’s words seriously without deconstruction or psychoanalysis.
Reason is a wonderful tool, but it is weak force for deep change in human beings. Faith, hope, and love are not tools; they are virtues, powerful and exceedingly difficult to embody, and much more efficacious than reason for changing lives.