I collect cartoons of religious and philosophical themes, and as epiphanies of segments of our culture, they can be striking in their force. Consider these two of my favorites...
One cartoon shows two aging "hippie" types sitting at a bar, commiserating. One is saying to the other: "You know, nihilism just isn't enough anymore." (I often think of much of western culture in this image.)
The other cartoon shows a sprinting fellow, face all screwed up in intensity, with a caption that says "Definition of a Zealot: one, who AFTER having lost sight of his goal, DOUBLES his efforts." (I often think of much of religious "funny-mentalism" in this image.)
There are two burning issues for us hiding in these cartoons--the issue of worldview relevance and the issue of worldview truth.
The issue of relevance of a worldview or belief-system can be simply stated in terms of "does it satisfy?" or "does it add value to my life?" It may be the most elegant philosophical system currently on the market today, but if it doesn't meet "felt needs" (apart from some occasional need for logical consistency and elegance, obviously) it cannot truly be considered 'relevant'. And, as such, it would be especially vulnerable to the incisive "What's the Point?" question.
In the specific case of my worldview--that of thinking, counter-culture, radical Christianity--it meets several 'relevance' needs as a belief system, but also affords me opportunity to see other needs met as a way of life.
First, as a belief system, it essentially meets my existential needs for meaning, purpose, and direction.
When I first became a Christian (as a 20-year-old Computer Science senior in college), I could not articulate my need for 'meaning', but as life unfolded over the next few years, I felt the existentialist's agony all too acutely. I remember it well...
I was fresh out of grad school, had a good job in my field, and life had just 'begun' for me. As I began to live life in the day-to-day reality, I found that I was confronted with a myriad of choices. Many of these choices involved ethics, and some of these choices were very, very difficult and unclear. And so, like many people, I struggled with the issues. I agonized over my choices. I deliberated over trade-offs. And then one day, I realized that the mechanistic, Newtonian universe--cold, bleak, impersonal--couldn't care less about my struggles. That the cold, universal machine would grind on and on--millions and billions of years after the race had died, after the sun had gone out, and the last information trace of me had disappeared from history--and that NO choices I agonized over would make ANY difference in that outcome. And I saw, as a new Christian, the horror of the existentialist's predicament. Without a context that somehow attributed meaning to my choices--BIGGER THAN THE UNIVERSE--my choices became trivial and not worth bothering about at all.
And I instantly saw the beauty of my Christian worldview! Here was a "bigger than the Universe" God who was a conscious Agent, who preserved all of my tiniest actions, deliberations, intentions, motives, agonizing choices in His memory, and who was committed to not only allowing my personal actions to "add value" to the lives of others, but to also function as a basis for eternal recognition in some "hereafter". In this system, in which the individual self survived death and hence could "carry itself with it", there was an entity that survived the death of the universe--me. All the moral choices that I made in integrity became part of me--my character--and I get to 'take my character with me when I die'. All deliberations, however small, now became magnified and leveraged across a huge span of time and space--and all my actions flamed suddenly with significance: the quality of my work, the compassion of my life, the integrity of my heart, the loyalty of my relationships, the honesty of my mind.
With the "meaning" need met, the "purpose" question couldn't be far behind. For, if every action had eternal consequences (via the memory of God and the stream of historical consequences in the lives of other selves who would survive death), then the "purpose" was rather straightforward--organize my life in such a way as to maximize the positive consequences of my choices and actions. Since my actions were important and significant, then these actions could be leveraged for either construction/creation or damage/destruction. Thus, meaning became a foundation for purpose.
"Direction" was a bit more difficult to get to, though. It was so simplistic to say "I am here to maximize goodness"; it was incredibly more complex to define "goodness" (!) and to discover some "methods" to maximize it. The "Church-anity" that I grew up in had all kinds of rules and laws and prohibitions about my life and thinking, but the Bible itself was surprisingly non-specific on many, many issues. To be sure, it warned me explicitly about major issues that would be destructive in the universe--murder, treachery, deceit, apathy, slander--but expressed most of the instruction in the way of principles and guidelines. I was to be 'freed' to act responsibly. Martin Luther's dictum of "Love God and live as you please--in that order" was such a good summary of New Testament "law."
It is not an accident that the Greatest Commandmant (according to Jesus, in Matt 22.37) was to LOVE GOD--to foster a personal relationship with another Agent! It was not "Thou shalt" and "Thou shalt not", but to enjoy and communicate and to try to please and to share with this meta-Person.
But the core content of "direction" turned out to be the imitation of the love and character of Christ, as he lived on earth. His character and life was a wild, swirling mixture of compassion, confrontation with the religious establishment, an almost riotous celebration (e.g. He was accused of being a "party animal" in Luke 7.34!), practical teaching, personal and private communion with His Father, community care, and personal destiny. The more I learn about Him, the more "direction" I get.
Now, the words "meaning, purpose, and direction", although important, are nevertheless only a subset of my needs. I need more than to 'feel good' inside about the choices I am making and the significance of the values they represent. I also need to experience things outside of my self. I need to experience uniqueness and I also need to experience sameness. I need to be a part of a community of peers, and yet to be unique within that group. And the Christian community, historically considered, creates the setting in which this can be experienced.
This is surprisingly important. If God had only delivered a system of propositions to believe, then I theoretically could "get by" with never having to interact with another human being--and thereby miss the opportunity to help and be helped by others; the opportunity to experience community. But instead, He created a community (by His occasional interventions in history: e.g. Moses, Jesus), and also created me with a "pull toward" social interaction with this community. In other words, I am "built" to need participation in community. The psychological and social sciences have amply demonstrated that my membership in a peer group, and a significant role within that peer group are essential to my personal well-being.
This historical community is highly flawed (as most of you have NO NEED for me to tell you!), but there is nonetheless a cadre of individuals within it (and sometimes peripheral to it) that demonstrate the "direction" discussed above. They live out the Second Greatest Commandment--"Love your neighbor as yourself". It is easy to discount religion in western culture because of its 'bad apples'; it is much more difficult to "explain away" the extraordinary lives of those core disciples of Jesus Christ throughout history.
Consider the early, pre-Constantine church for a moment. The "relevance" of the Christian faith for members of the Roman empire was an increase in lifespan of around 20 years! A recent book by a sociologist (Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity--A Sociologist Reconsiders History, Princeton: 1996) argues that the Christian faith "took over the Roman Empire" by the sheer survivability of its members. The difference that basic Christian community service made during the frequent plagues; the difference in mortality rates among females who were not forced to marry 15 years early, nor forced to undergo abortions; the difference in population growth afforded by anti-infanticide praxis; the difference in cross-cultural harmony during periods of tremendous urban chaos--these were the factors that contributed to a much longer lifespan for individual Christians of the day! "Relevance" could be measured in years and decades.
[Today, of course, these differences have been "appropriated" by western culture, and so this aspect of relevance is not as noticeable. In certain disadvantaged situations (e.g. homeless shelters, famine relief, missionary education), however, it can still be seen quite easily.]
At this point in my argument, I internally feel a knee-jerk response. The Christian commitment to ruthless honesty and struggle against humanity's general tendency toward self-deception(!), reminds me of a childhood fairy tale that struck fear and horror into my heart as a child--the story of the Emperor's New Clothes.
If you remember the story, the vain Emperor is dissatisfied with various attempts by tailors at a new wardrobe, but eventually falls prey to his vanity and self-deception. He dresses up in these invisible clothes and parades around naked in the town, firmly convinced that he is completely splendid in his appearance.
As a child, I tended to be over-sensitive to the criticisms and opinions of others, and so this simple story always functioned as a prophecy of doom for me! I always anticipated getting laughed at behind my back because my personal appearance or lack of fashion sense was acceptable to me, but a source of disapproval by others. This was an extreme position, of course, but what it did help me with was to develop a rather radical self-critical facility about the things I believed in. Granted, it made me more skeptical that I probably should be, but this has had many positive effects in my life.
So, when I get to the end of my above argument that the historical Christian worldview "meets my needs", I personally cannot escape from the next burning question--"Yeah, but is that just a rationalization, or it is REALLY true?" Are my beliefs 'really there' or am I simply parading about naked?!
Curiously, this "objection" about Relevance vs. Truth has been fading away in our culture over the last decade or so. I have been an active, thinking, vocal disciple of Jesus Christ for some 25 years now, and fewer and fewer people raise this issue. As I reflect upon this, I detect a pattern of more honesty on the part of the younger generation. I detect less arrogance about their self-determination, about their ability to control their own destinies, about their ability to overcome personal limitations through 'self-help' campaigns. Their optimism is much more guarded, and their pessimism is much less severe. They possibly recognize that their needs JUST MIGHT BE clues to guide them on a search for answers.
And these needs CAN be helpful as "clues". I NEED to use my mind some, so systems of thought that essentially tell me to "cut off my head" (e.g. Zen, some flavors of Eastern thought, some brands of mystical Christianity) can be ruled out quickly. I NEED to love and be loved, so systems of thought that are rigidly "duty"-obsessed (e.g. some versions of Islam, some forms of Tantrics), have less viability. I NEED to be active in community experience, so systems that require me to hide in a monastery, take vows of silence for years, or generally constrict my interaction with the concrete world (e.g. various ascetic or monastic movements--both Eastern and Western), will probably not make the "short list" of candidates. I NEED to be recognized as a significant self, so systems of thought that deny my irreducible personality/consciousness (e.g. some groups in Buddhism, materialism) seem to offer less potential for fruitfulness. I NEED some level of "operational and metaphysical" simplicity (cf. Jesus in Mt 11.28-30 or Micah 6:8 in the Old Testament--"He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."), so systems involving hordes of deities, sub-deities, levels of spirits, "guides", elaborate systems of laws and ritual (e.g. several forms of Hinduism, most New Age movements), just cannot be the best place to look first. These needs can function as clues to a certain extent.
But I am of different age and ilk. And for me, as a science-oriented, periodically obsessive-compulsive, technology-dependent, US citizen living in Silicon Valley, and working in the high tech industry segment...I am STILL concerned about touching/seeing the fabric on those trousers!
Fortunately for me, I live in a period of time where the basic truth claims of the classic Christian position are becoming easier to believe and in many cases, to authenticate.
We know from sociology that cults originate and initially develop among the intelligentsia and the elite. Christianity was no exception to this in the early days of the Roman Empire. It was considered a "cult" by the non-Christians of the day, and spread initially (outside of Palestine) among the urban elite. Strangely enough, we are seeing the beginnings of such a pattern in Western culture, albeit in an implicit form. Consider the following trends and perspectives in modern research and thought:
1. Naturalism is showing signs of giving up trying to reduce human consciousness to materialism. Witness the rise of interdisciplinary research and dialogue between neurobiologists, cognitive scientists, computational linguists, mystics, theologians, philosophers of mind (as exemplified in the Journal of Consciousness Studies). We seem to be stuck with the fact that we are 'persons'! We are irreducible agents, we have minds, we have volition, we have limited power to alter nature (e.g. psychosomatics). Modern Christian claims about the "soul" (of which one aspect is "mind") are not as taboo as they once were.
2. The universe just lost the title of "All there is"! The work in quantum particle research has eventuated in general acceptance of the "existence" of "virtual particles". In other words, for every REAL particle (i.e. in the universe), there are teeming hordes of VIRTUAL (read: "un-real") particles which interact with it. The universe has suddenly become only a tiny part of a bigger (and unseen) reality. The Christian has always maintained this. [For a basic introduction to these virtual particles, see Robert Gilmore's Alice in Quantumland (Copernicus/Springer-Verlag: 1995) or Bruce Gregory's Inventing Reality--Physics as Language (Wiley: 1990).]
3. Depending on your cosmogeny orientation, the research into the Big Bang equations that made Stephen Hawking more recently decide that there might be an Intelligent Designer (e.g. Brief History of Time, Bantam:1988, pp. 122, 175), may also influence you to open up to such a possibility. Or the Anthropic Principle, that the universe is apparently "fine-tuned" to support the existence of the tiny group called "humans" on a tiny planet called "Earth", may confront you with your real significance to an Intelligent Other! [See Evidence of Purpose--Scientists Discover the Creator, edited by John Marks Templeton (Continuum:1994).]
4. There is a huge resurgence of "faith-friendly" academic philosophy. Thomas Morris, past Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame, describes the difference between his first philosophy course and the situation of today (in God and the Philosophers, Oxford: 1994, p.5; see also Philosophers Who Believe ed. by Kelly James Clark, IVP:1993 for similar autobiographical accounts.):
Everyone in the room was affected by these announcements of such a personal nature, coming as they did from a person not otherwise inclined to engage in autobiographical revelation (i.e. his first undergraduate philosophy Prof--a vocal atheist). We were led to believe, and much subsequent experience in the study of twentieth-century philosophy seemed to confirm, that the best modern philosophers had no patience whatsoever with that old-time religion of our up- bringing. Philosophers in our time, it was easy to conclude, had utterly dismissed the existence of God, along with such other nonsense as faeries, ghosts, goblins, and elves...Part of these advances have been due to the academic onslaught that has reduced the theoretical aspect of the 'problem of evil' (see Reason and Religious Belief by Peterson, Hasker, Reichenback, and Basinger, Oxford: 1991.), and by major strides in religious epistemology (by Platinga, Alston, Swinburne).
This seems to be the general impression held by most relatively well-educated people in America today. Philosophers are assumed to be enemies of faith. Reason and religion are thought to be diametrically opposed. What many people, even within academic circles, do not realize is that there have been tremendous changes within the world of philosophy over the past couple of decades. In that short time, we have seen a dramatic and unexpected resurgence of religious belief and commitment taking place among the ranks of some of the most active practitioners and teachers of philosophy on college and university campuses all over America, a development found extremely perplexing by many onlookers.
More than a decade ago, for example, a professional organization was formed by several senior members of the American Philosophical Association as a sort of support group for Christian philosophers, who at the time were increasing in number and prominence, and yet were still clearly swimming against the main currents of philosophical thought in our time. Since its inception, this organization, the Society of Christian Philosophers, has grown to about 1,000 active members and has launched a professional journal, Faith and Philosophy, that in the years of its existence has become a focal point for exciting new philosophical work on religious topics.
5. Historical research and archeology are increasingly and consistently confirming the accuracy and authenticity of the biblical record. Every new dig in Israel, every new manuscript discovery, every new historical reconstruction of biblical life seems to authenticate previously disputed passages of scripture. Historical figures that supposedly were fabrications are found in ostraca (e.g. David, Balaam). Historical sites that didn't exist are located in literary records (e.g. Nazareth). After-the-fact dating of prophecies are being overturned by discovery of manuscripts that pre-date the foretold events (e.g. Daniel at Qumran, Destruction of the Temple in pre-70 AD manuscripts.) The whole biblical scholarship world (apart from specialty fringe groups, such as the Jesus Seminar) is becoming more conservative in its understanding of the events of Jesus' life and in the historical reliability of the New Testament documents (see The Historical Reliability of the Gospels by Craig Blomberg, IVP: 1987 for a recent re-cap of the data and trends.).
This movement is in part due to the recent involvement by Classicists, such as Richard Burridge, Loveday Alexander, A.N. Sherwin-White, in research in the New Testament documents, and by the 'controlling data' of archeological/historical results--e.g. reported by Richard Horsley, Wayne Meeks, Bruce Chilton, Harry Gamble. [For bibliographical information, see my "Books" section in my web site: http://www.christian-thinktank.com.]
For me, as a committed "Christian Skeptic," these trends are fascinating. I personally investigate many of these issues--to test the "fabric" of course--and find real change going on. The arrogance of 50 years ago is melting, and an openness to God seems to be a by-product of the thawing of our hearts.
I am a member of the Library of Science bookclub, and as such, I receive the monthly offers of new science books. One of the selections recently had a fascinating title: The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age. It contains the 'confessions' by a number of great scientists, with an honest expression of "fearful intimations of the end of the great quest." The answers to the big questions will not be forthcoming from that arena.
Does this mean that I can 'prove God'? Or that there are no major problems within the Christian worldview? Or that the Church is not a constant embarrassment to the Living God? Of course not.
To my personal frustration, God doesn't seem to be interested in public displays of His power, or in doing circus-like tricks to get our attention, or in re-configuring our heads so that we can universally come to full consensus on some theistic argument. His basic modus operandi is " You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart." (Jeremiah 29.13). He gives us hints, and data, and even a book of His actions in history. He affords us many good arguments (e.g. fulfilled prophecy), and special events in history (e.g. Exodus, Jesus' appearance and resurrection). We develop wonder at the elegance of the mathematical structure of the universe, are moved by the experience of interpersonal bonds, we sense that 'something more' is available and beckoning to us. But in the final analysis, we are personal agents as He is, and we must act as agents--and not as automatons. He seeks lovers, not lathes. We have adequate--but not necessarily conclusive--reasons to believe in His existence, His appearance and involvement in history, and in His desire to become constructively and meaningfully involved in our lives. He has a purpose also--and it includes "adding value" to those who want more. The intensity of this desire and purpose becomes apparent at the Cross: Out of love and desire for communion with humans, God becomes a man and takes upon Himself the future judicial consequences of our less-than-righteous lives, creating an environment in which God can be approached freely--in history. Jesus' words in John 10.10, often quoted but generally skirted over by Western culture, should be seen for the payload they really carry: " I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full."
So, what's my point?
Basically, that the modern situation has highlighted both our need for a bigger-picture worldview, and that one candidate for that coveted spot--historic and radical Judeo-Christianity--offers great promise in meeting both the existential-personal needs, as well as satisfying our deeply-rooted need to escape wishful thinking in this area. It makes demands upon our honestly and humility, but offers much to our time in history, as it has throughout the ages.
1. The article was supposed to deal with the issue of relevance (I was contacted by the editor and invited to submit an article around that topic). As such, I didn't go into all the arguments/data I consider valid as bases for justification of my 'belief' in my Living and Loving Lord.
2. The reference to the Anthropic Principle needs a brief comment. I personally don't 'need it' to be convinced the universe was structured for a multi-faceted, part-spirit/part-matter, conscious/sensate agent such as I am. All I have to do is experience cinnamon, scarlet, a gentle breeze, an unfolding sunset, the feel of cool water, the sound of a harp, warmth of a fire, the tang of mustard, the loyalty of a pet, the smell of fresh clover, the looks of lovers, honeysuckle, the smile of an infant, the sound of gentle rain on a hot summer day, red-ringlet hair, the clarity of the stars, the brooding of the ocean, a laugh, tears at reunions, wildflowers, the touch of silk, full moons in the Fall--to know that this universe, in its blazon of glory and robustness, was created with my full and joyous participation in it planned from the start!
[I will have to analyze and explore this Principle later in the Tank--several philosophical objections and issues have arisen from visitors about it--quite apart from its presupposition of some version of a "big bang" cosmogeny.]
3. The references to Hawking's position are NOT to imply that he accepts the God of the Bible, by any means. He does emphatically deny the label "atheist", and his conception of God is generally "deist" (i.e. God "wound the universe up" and set it spinning with its laws, never to intervene), but my point in the above concerns the common point between theism and deism--the Designer issue.