Gospel & Universe
"Open Your Heart" 1
This page argues that there are many good reasons to believe in religion, although these reasons are mostly practical or situation and aren't necessarily based in a quest for truth.
Reasons - Beach Scene 1: A Friend in High Places - Practical Reasons
Believers often ask the rest of us to refrain from reason, and instead "open our hearts" to Jesus. Yet reason -- in either its pure or practical forms -- isn't the problem. One can find reasons to believe just about anything -- from the divinity of Christ or Krishna to the relativistic philosophies of atheism or existentialism. Reason isn't the problem; rather, it's the lack of emotional or physical experience of the divine, combined with the unreliability of other people's accounts, that makes agnostics reconcile themselves to doubt rather than believe in something they aren't able to experience or verify in any way.
It was at the end of August, and I was in Calgary on my annual visit to my sister and her family. We had just finished lunch, and I was chatting with my brother-in-law, a French graphic artist, and my niece, a Psychology student. My brother-in-law suggested to me that I needed a Higher Power in my life. How else could life have Meaning? I'm not sure he would have capitalized Meaning, but I should probably write it that way, since no one in their family would imagine God without a capital G. I told my brother-in-law that liberalism -- the open exploration of different perspectives -- seemed more realistic to me.
He probably got exasperated, I couldn’t tell. The French, after all, invented many of the terms for this type of debate -- Montaigne's What do I know?, Descartes’ I think therefore I am, Pascal’s abysses of infinity and nothingness, Voltaire’s clockwork God, Bergson’s Why is there something rather than nothing?, Sartre's nausea, Camus' absurdity, de Chardin’s evolutionary theism, etc.
We debated the question for an hour or two, when all of a sudden my niece stopped us. She stretched her arms into the air like a Greek tragedienne (I couldn't tell if she was being completely ironic or not), and implored me: Roger, let go of your reason. Just believe!
With respect to my lovely niece, reason isn’t the problem. Pure reason, which I define here as logic on its own, without cultural or emotional filters, acts like math in words, like science in general; it has nothing to say about things it can't establish to be logically true. Pure reason can't define human meaning (epistemology) or human states of being (ontology), let alone prove -- or disprove -- the metaphysical epistemologies of religion. While some people try to use logic to prove metaphysical belief -- or to tear it down -- it really isn't up to doing either of these things.
Practical reason, on the other hand, is more than capable of doing both of these things.
The definition of practical reason I'm working with here is the situational reasoning people use to validate what they think or believe. This practical reason consists in the arguments -- based on logic but also on emotion, family, culture, geography, and history -- that people use to convince themselves about the validity of larger concepts and systems that generally lie beyond their immediate experience, such as the origin of the universe, the genealogy of true prophets, or the nature of God.
Far from being an impediment to belief or disbelief, practical reason is a conduit, an amalgam of smaller reasons -- and their attendant emotions and situational encouragements (such as family or culture) -- that are easily integrated into larger systems of belief. Indeed, one could say that almost every belief system (as opposed to every system of disbelief or system of doubt) is designed or shaped to make situational or practical reasons fit nicely -- and lock deeply -- into the larger belief system. For example, if you want, with both heart and mind, to free yourself from past actions, to be connected to a caring universe, and to live beyond the grave, the structure of Christianity will be more helpful to you than those of existentialism or agnosticism. Put briefly, and perhaps somewhat paradoxically, religious belief makes perfect sense for reasons that are both emotional and practical.
Belief systems are both products of and sanctioned by the cultures in which believers are raised. This is a large part of the problem -- if, that is, you are trying to establish what's universally true, rather than what's true for your particular psychological make-up, your particular family, culture, civilization, or planet. Defending one's own belief system is a bit like Maserati building a car and then saying that this car is the best because it includes all the specifications valued by Maserati. In an ecumenical moment, a Maserati dealer may tell you, Other cars are also good, at least the Italian ones.
Agnostics admit that their agnosticism is a product of geography, history, and culture. If they have an Anglo-Saxon background, they may admit that their doubt comes from writers like Chaucer, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Swift, Voltaire, Locke, Hume, Nietzsche, and Sartre. They don't claim that their philosophical system is somehow transcendent and eternal, above space and time, above geography and history. They have no idea if it's true for all time. It just seems to be true for them, at the moment.
The problem with practical reason, at least from the point of view of establishing truth, is that it can lead too easily into belief or disbelief. Surrounded by uncertainty, theists and essentialists argue themselves into an overarching Meaning that doesn't correspond to the world of facts, while atheists and essentialists argue themselves out of intrinsic meaning and into absurdity. For agnostics there's no stamp -- divine or absurd -- on their philosophic plan. Instead, it's a working hypothesis which might prove to be wrong. Philosophically, it's a cousin of anarchy: a paradoxical system of philosophy that resists systematization.
Agnostics accept that their thinking has been channelled by DNA, culture, history, and by epistemological systems of belief and disbelief, yet they don't believe that their channel is the highest or best one. They are willing to change the channel if there are good reasons to do so. But by good reasons, agnostics mean reasons that aren't just a function of pure logic or situational reasoning. Rather, they need reasons which make sense in terms of both their own unadulterated experience and in terms of the real world around them, which is most clearly understood according to the disciplines of science and history.
Agnostics observe that people reason themselves into almost anything -- from bleakest existentialism to martyrdom, from Nazism to Scientology. People have practical, emotional, and cultural reasons for admiring and identifying with real and fictional figures -- such as Che Guevara, Superman, Gandhi, Gandalf, James Bond, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Strider, etc. If we see our personal and cultural ideals writ large in figures such as Superman or Martin Luther King, how much more reason is there to identify with and believe in Jesus, a figure 1) whose virtues have been repeated over and over for the last two thousand years in writings that are referred to with the greatest respect, 2) whose story confronts many of the problems we all face -- the search for meaning, confrontation with authority, the need for change on a social as well as psychological level, etc., 3) whose connection to God links us to the greatest Force -- and the greatest Meaning -- in the universe, 4) whose death gives us forgiveness for our sins and redemption from our wayward thoughts and actions, and 5) whose resurrection promises us we'll live forever.
Just as Spiderman makes us feel daring, and Saint Francis makes us feel kind, so Jesus makes us feel the desire to love, forgive, live a moral life, and speak the truth. Yet Jesus does more than Gandhi or Mother Teresa: he provides forgiveness for our sins as well as an overarching meaning to our lives. He banishes the angst and uncertainty that comes with being an individual drifting in an enormous universe, amid aeons of time. He is perhaps the greatest temptation of all.
Beach Scene 1: A Friend in High Places
In Jesus you have a true Friend. A Friend more faithful and powerful than any you've ever known. A Friend for life. And death. A Friend who controls the universe with his Father, who's also your friend. Or, rather, He's the Father of your Friend. So He loves you and cares for you but He can be strict. So don’t piss Him off. He controls the universe and keeps immaculate books on everything. It’s best to stay closer to your Friend than to his Father, who sees everything that you're thinking. Like that time your friend and you broke into a stereo shop and made off with two Bose speaker systems.
He also knows that you've been looking at that girl, the one with the olive skin and the soft curve of her neck. He doesn’t give any sign that He know who you're looking at. But you suspect He knows that you're not just looking at your girlfriend. He's watching you. Always. This can be unnerving, but in time you get used to it. The certainty that you're not alone is unnerving, but also comforting. No more anomie or mis-en-abyme. No more French terms.
Your Friend's a rock in times of trouble. He's the Traveller who travels with you now and forever. He's your best Friend. Unlike your previous best friend, who buggered off when you were in prison for stealing two Bose stereo systems. Who buggered off with one of the speaker systems and your girlfriend, the one with the ivory skin and green eyes. No, this new Friend has never abandoned you. In fact He found you when you abandoned yourself. He saw you coming out of the prison and followed you. He saw you when you got the speaker system out of your stash and went to the liquor store to buy two cases of Johnny Walker. He looked down upon you when you were in a drunken stupor and found yourself in the bed of some girl and couldn’t even remember her name. She was kind and sweet, with olive skin and luminous brown eyes, the colour of forgiveness itself. You felt so guilty you couldn’t even look her in the face. He followed you to your home where you stared at the blank wall for two hours and then threw away the bottles and the hookas and the pills. He heard you say to yourself that you wanted to clean up your act.
He walked with you when you were followed by the police and the tax man. You weren't used to scrutiny, but now you've got into the habit of having nothing to hide. When the stereo system broke, you tossed it into the bin in the back alley. Now it’s as if nothing ever happened. It's like you were handed a clean slate. It's like when the correctional system sent you the news two years ago that your criminal record was expunged. Poof! you were as good as new.
And He'll walk with you when the final moment comes, and you're staring Death in the face.
Now Death isn’t telling bedtime stories anymore. He nudges his cold sickle against your rib and you remember how Adam felt when he was pushed out the gate. There’s a swollen scab where a rib used to be. The nurse is already attending another man, with a scraggy beard and broken sandals. She reminds you of that other girl, the one with the sacred heart, but that was long gone, lost in the thickets of memory. Your memory only points backwards. What's ahead of you is what's got you worried.
You stop in your tracks: a dark wood, a leopard barring your way. It's ready to pounce. But your Friend is still at your side.
Storm clouds are on the horizon. The sky is closing in. The cold metal of the blade is digging at your side.
Your body's falling apart -- in ways that you were never aware it ever worked. Your right arm's stiff, but you can still feel the staff. You keep walking. The rod hovers somewhere, probably near the girl you left behind, the one with no name. Somewhere near the garbage bin that was your life. Somewhere near the speakers that are long gone. They're long gone. The staff comforts you, and you decide to forget about the rest. God is merciful.
The black clouds close in. You can no longer see anything. You breathe in the dense smoke. You feel the leopard bite into your jugular.
The particles of your fallen body form a wall and you're stopped in your tracks. You're the wall, dense, black, immobile.
The wall explodes and the fragments burst into clouds of grey and light blue. The clouds break apart and the sun shines through, but this time the sun's green.
You're on a small island in a violet sea. Your friend's beside you, telling you that it’s your turn. He saved his own skin, just as you would have done. He's holding up a mescal shooter and looking at you as if you came from Mars.
You look around and see the enigmatic smile of the girl you thought had disappeared. Her legs are smooth and tanned. Olive. Her foot nudges your calf. Her name is Mary.
The practical reasons to believe in Jesus are overwhelming, and the repetition of His Absolute Truths over two thousand years makes these seem far from whimsical. The reasons are time-honoured. They're ancient.
Yet they're not really that time-honoured, not really that ancient. Two thousand years may seem long, but it isn't long in the bigger scope of human history, let alone in the bigger scope of Earth's history. People believed in gods for far longer than they believed in God. And people believed in God far longer than they believed in Jesus. Adding geography to the picture, we see that people in different locations believed in completely different Schemes of Things for thousands of years.
For instance, the idea of karma-samsara (reincarnation) existed before Jesus and is still believed in by as many people who believe that only Jesus can open the Pearly Gates.
Kali-Ma, Brahman, the Dao, they have quite a pedigree.
Next: "Open Your Heart" 2