The way of inescapable doubt and its virtue

Category: Excerpt (Page 2 of 2)

Book excerpt

Atheists and Fundamentalists Have the Same Religion

One of the major consequences of taking claims about God literally is that doing so exposes a number of contradictions about God: the contradiction between God’s goodness and the existence of evil (If God is good, why is there evil?); God’s personality and God’s infinity (How can God be infinite and transcendent and still be intimate and close?), and God’s unchangeableness and God’s activity (How can God be unchanging and still interact with the world?).1 These contradictions are not lost on two groups in particular: religious fundamentalists and militant atheists.

John Hagee a fundamentalist Christian preacher

Indeed, the two groups that spend the most time dealing with these tensions and contradictions are the fundamentalists—who have explanations, usually unconvincing ones, for why these are only apparent contradictions—and atheists, who point to these contradictions as evidence that God cannot exist. In this way, both fundamentalists and atheists share the assumption that claims about God are straightforward descriptive claims meant to be taken literally. Curiously, these two groups seen as polar opposites actually have the same understanding of religion. This was an observation not lost on Joseph Campbell, who noted:

As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.

Campell and Kennedy, Thou art that, ch. 1

In neither case does anyone accept the metaphors as metaphors. To see how this works out, we’ll take some examples from social media and other sites.

The Fundamentalists

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On Faith and Belief

Many understand faith to be equivalent to belief. Part of this may be a question of translation, the same Greek word translated as faith—πιστις pistis—can also be translated as belief. The word belief has a number of different connotations, most of which have to do with knowledge and are understood in that light.

In matters of religion, people will frequently be asked questions like “Do you believe in God?” or “Do you believe in Jesus?” but the question is somewhat ambiguous: does belief here mean “convinced of the existence of” or “give credence to the claims of”? That particular ambiguity was exploited by Mark Twain when he was once asked, “Do you believe in infant baptism?” Twain famously, and brilliantly, replied, “Believe it? Hell! I’ve actually seen it done!”

The question “Do you believe in God?” sometimes comes across like “Do you believe in Santa Claus?”—it is a question ascertaining whether you believe in the existence of God. But “Do you believe in Jesus Christ?” is a little different.

With rare exception, most people accept that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical personage, who actually lived and died. In this case, it appears that the question is designed to ascertain whether you believe that he was who the Church, or perhaps even this individual questioner, says he was. That is, belief in this context points to more than affirmation of something’s existence, like believing in Santa Claus, Sasquatch, or UFOs; this is about assent to doctrine. It’s not so much do you believe that Jesus exists, but do you believe he exists in the right way?

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The Trouble with Models

In the movie “Zoolander,” vapid male fashion model Derek Zoolander is being presented with an architectural model of a school he hopes to fund, the “Derek Zoolander Center For Children Who Can’t Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too.” The presenters are stunned when rather than being pleased with the model, Zoolander is enraged:⁠1

Zoolander: What is this? A center for ants?!? How can we be expected to teach children to learn how to read… if they can’t even fit inside the building?

Mugatu: Derek, it’s just a small…

Zoolander: I don’t wanna hear your excuses! The center has to be at least… three times bigger than this!

The absurdity of mistaking a model building for the real thing works as a gag in a movie, but when the same mistake is made in our theology, it’s not nearly so amusing. And it happens all the time.

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Recognizing One Another’s Metaphors

Every year I take a group of university students on a week of service-learning to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation in western North Carolina. There we have occasion to learn about Cherokee history (including the long history of oppression and suffering), culture, tradition, politics, and faith. On one such trip we were speaking with Bo Taylor, an expert in native dance and music resident at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.  He is also a committed Christian who continues to embrace traditional spirituality.

He told us a story.⁠1

When the white men first came to our lands, they saw us singing songs to the sun and they said, “Ah, they’re sun worshipers!” Then they saw us dancing around the fire and singing songs and said, “Ah, they’re worshiping the fire!” And so they long understood us to be savages and heathens. But that’s only because they never stopped to ask us what we were doing. Because if they had, we would have told them that there is only one Great Spirit who is the Creator of all things. That Creator has an emblem in the sky: the sun, the fire that burns in the heavens. That fire also burns on the earth and is a sign of the Great Spirit in our midst. And we know that that fire burns within us giving us life. The first thing that happens after you die is that the fire goes out and the body grows cold. Now, let me ask you, have you ever heard of a fire in the heavens, the fire that dwells on earth with us, and the fire that dwells within?

Of course, at this point, all the Christians in the room sheepishly admitted that this was one way of understanding the Trinity.  We said as much. Bo continued:

We had the same religion that you had, we just used different names. But you never stopped to ask us. You just assumed we were heathens and savages and that we needed to be forcibly converted to your religion. But we already had it.

Bo’s story is the perfect illustration of what happens when we confuse our metaphors for the reality they point to. Both sets of metaphors, the traditional Christian articulation of the Trinity and the Cherokee sun and fire, point to an ineffable reality beyond ordinary experience.  But in this case, the white evangelists could not distinguish between the metaphors they employed and the reality those metaphors pointed to. As a result, they were incapable of seeing another set of metaphors pointing to the same reality they were purporting to proclaim.

1 I am paraphrasing

The Importance of Knowing Context

Consider the following statements:⁠  1

  • I married my cousin.
  • I was boxing all night.
  • Lisa said that Phil knocked her up.
  • Jerry was really pissed last night.
  • Every once in a while I find a random goldfish in the sheets.
  • Did you manage to find helium for your shark?
  • I’m sure I can stash your wallet somewhere in my taco if need be.
  • So, if you like Canadian Bacon and don’t have a uterus, you’re welcome to come.

Some of them might seem straightforward, others bizarre. But how does your understanding of these sentences change with some context provided?

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A Race that Communicates Entirely in Metaphor

One of the best episodes of the television series “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was an episode in which the Enterprise is sent to negotiate with an enigmatic race known as the Tamarians, who are notoriously difficult to communicate with. When communication fails altogether, the Tamarians in a last-ditch effort to build a relationship, transport their Captain Dathon and Enterprise Captain Picard to the surface of a planet on which a strange beast dwells. The Tamarian captain keeps saying, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” over and over, which Picard cannot understand. Eventually, it becomes clear to Picard that Dathon is attempting to communicate something through these odd turns of phrase.  He comes to understand that in Tamarian folklore, Darmok and Jalad were two hunters who met on the island of Tanagra, where they fought and defeated a beast and became friends. Picard realizes that the two situations are meant to be the same and that the alien captain’s intent is to build relationship through mutual struggle. The strategy takes a tragic turn when Dathon succumbs to wounds sustained fighting the beast.

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The Insufficiency of Ordinary Language

An excerpt from the chapter “Faith and Metaphor,” on the insufficiency of ordinary language in matters of faith:

St. Augustine, by Gaspar de Crayer – Museo del Prado, Public Domain

There is an old story told of St. Augustine as he walked along the seashore contemplating the teaching of the Holy Trinity, which he was trying to understand. He observed a young boy digging a small hole in the beach and filling it with water from the sea. Augustine asked the young boy what he was doing and the boy responded that he was emptying the sea into the hole he had dug. Incredulous, Augustine asked him how he could expect to contain such a vast body of water in such a small hole. The boy responded that he would sooner finish his task than would Augustine be able to comprehend the mystery of the Trinity and contain the vast mystery of God in the mere words of a book. ⁠1

Augustine understood the boy to have been an angel of God, sent to remind him to have a little humility. The story serves as an example of the futility of trying to comprehend divine mystery with human intellect. And it serves as a reminder that divine mystery cannot be fully contained in human words. Nevertheless, we keep trying to do exactly that.

Religions are full of words: scriptures, hagiographies, liturgies, hymns, devotions, sermons, meditations, doctrines, dogmas, canon laws, articles of faith, confessions, creeds, catechisms, edicts, bulls, fatwas, responsa, rabbinic rulings, talmuds, aphorisms, koans, commentaries, encyclicals, resolutions, theological statements, and press releases. The advice of the boy-angel to Augustine notwithstanding, we have very often tried to capture the divine reality in human words.

1 Story found in Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology : An Introduction. 4th ed.  Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2007.

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