An experimental truth

My non-Theist friend Dan often says, “It’s not what you believe that counts. It’s how you live your life.” And who can argue with that?

The Bible says the same. Jesus says, “not every one who calls me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father in heaven.” The sheep and goats in the parable are divided not on the basis of their beliefs, but on their readiness to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome strangers and visit the sick and the imprisoned. Jesus routinely decries the religious leaders of his day, not for their beliefs, but because of their hypocrisy. And he extends grace to people outside His faith, such as the Samaritan woman and the Roman Centurion.

It is equally true to say, “It doesn’t matter whether you believe the world is round or flat, it’s how you live your life.”  Long before a round earth was a proven fact, or even before mathematics and astronomy allowed it to be inferred, people led full, productive and moral lives. But it is also true that an accurate understanding of the world’s nature opens up possibilities not available to the “flat world” adherents.

A new way of knowing

I grew up as an atheist. My dad and I would routinely ridicule the simple-minded beliefs of Christians: “If Adam and Eve had two sons, then where did their wives come from?” “How could all those animals fit into an ark?” For people who prided ourselves on open-mindedness we embraced a literalism far more rigid than any Christian I have ever met.

It was a high school chemistry teacher that shook my smugness. He was actually a student teacher, assigned the unit on “Why we believe in the atomic theory.” For the first time, I understood that science was a much more tentative thing than I had imagined. I learned that, long before atoms could be observed, they were inferred on the strength that they “helped to explain what we could see.” Contradictory theories – light is a particle; light is a wave” – were held simultaneously because it was helpful to do so. It was around that time that I began to realize that History – that other “holy way of knowing” – was built on a mix of sometimes skimpy and often biased texts.

This revelation didn’t stop me from believing in science and history. But it did take the holy shine off them, and made me realize they were just ways of knowing things – helpful, in fact essential, but imperfect. This realization opened my eyes to other ways of knowing – also imperfect, but helpful.

It also made me drop my strange double standard. I had somehow gotten the notion that if we couldn’t prove definitively that God existed, then we couldn’t know anything about Him. But that’s not how good science is made. I realized if I wanted to know whether God was real or not, I had to get off the sidelines and jump in. And that realization indeed opened up far more possibilities than I had ever imagined.

Starting the faith experiment

Quakers talk about their faith being “an experiment.” I like that concept. It helps us stay true to what we actually observe and experience. And it helps us bring the humility of a good scientist to our faith.  Instead of devising a theory about God, and then fending off any arguments that might poke holes in our theory, we recognize that the theory is man-made, and welcome the opportunity to discard elements that are false or misleading.

That doesn’t mean the theory is useless. Christian faith gathers together the shared experience of millions of people who came before us. But the theory is not the God we seek. We inevitably, to use the biblical phrase, “look through a glass darkly,” but one day hope to see “face to face.”  And our call (and our gift) as Christians is to try to seek out the real truth about God any way we can.

In future entries I hope to write more about “what happened next” after I accepted the possibility that there was a God, and that I could not dismiss religious experience just because I didn’t have any.

Bur for now, I’d like to hear your own “experiments with the truth.” Have you had a realization that led you to discard your childhood beliefs about God? And if so, what was it?

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “An experimental truth

  1. Rhonda

    Hi Joy, it’s interesting that you should ask about childhood beliefs in God. I remember praying to God every night as a young child, to cope with the fears that followed me to sleep. I can’t say when I stopped believing in God, but there was a point when my experiences/interpretations of organized religion became profoundly negative. I was adopted into a secular Jewish family, raised in a secular Christian environment and declared myself an agnostic at an early age (I don’t think I was ever arrogant enough to say I was an atheist, even as a teenager). As a young person I didn’t know many people who articulated their faith and I had many friends who had a strong antipathy for religion.

    Through my work in social justice, I began to encounter people who came to activism through their faith. They were able to express both the questions they had about “received wisdom” in their faith, but also how that faith moved them to action and to their understanding of the world. I came to understand that faith wasn’t just about repression and control, but could also be about liberation and a more meaningful connection to the world.

    Reading this blog is a continuation of that joyous discovery, that I can both believe something different about the world (the existence of a capital “G” God), and yet share some critically important beliefs and learn from the ideas and experiences expressed by people whose lives are deeply impacted by a belief in God. As much as I feel it is necessary to embrace a shifting truth that challenges us to keep asking questions and looking at the world with fresh eyes, I think this is another truth that doesn’t change. We can be both different and inextricably bonded, similar at the same time.

    I still struggle with this strange dichotomy. Can I truly feel deep respect for someone else’s beliefs when I don’t share them entirely (back to the wave/particle duality)? The best example for me is the niqab/burka debate. I think I can stand behind a Muslim woman’s struggle to express her faith by wearing a head covering in Canada. Yet it is profoundly antithetical to my own belief in the equality of men and women (why must women be modest while men are free to walk as they choose?), and my belief that our (particularly female) bodies are not shameful or something that need to be covered.

    So how does this play out and what does it really matter? Any Muslim woman can and will do what she pleases regardless of my opinions. I thought I could bang out an answer before going to sleep tonight, but I’m not sure I can. I guess I can say it matters to me as an activist to somehow reconcile this tension so that I can work for my vision of an inclusive world with some authenticity, with a sense that I really believe in what I am fighting/working for. It means I am reaching for an absolute truth at the same time that I advocate for shifting sands.

    Thanks again for your posts that make me stretch my brain and poke at what lies beyond.

    Rhonda

  2. Kathy Campbell

    As a person who believes in Jesus Christ as the way, the truth and the life, and one who believes that the Bible is God’s Word, I adhere very much to faith as one of the three abiding things. And faith is belief after all, so I believe it is important what we believe. In the book of Hebrews the author writes, “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what is visible. And it goes on, “…without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” Jesus himself was at times taken aback at people’s lack of faith, and much overjoyed at the faith showed by others–and their faith made him act.

    My mom brought us up as Catholics and I am very happy that she did that. I remember many wonderful things about it: the kindness of the nuns, going to service on Sundays; but as I got older I rebelled against it because it did not seem “alive” to me. Yet, it was the beginning of my Christian experience, and I am grateful today. Back in the days when I threw it all out, I was searching for God to be more real to me. Ten years later he showed himself to be very real; although, he was real all along! And in the years that I challenged his reality, it did not change him, it only made life hard for me. That hardship eventually brought me back to believing, and I grew to believe in what I now know is tangible and alive.

  3. “All reason and natural search ought to follow faith, not to go before it, nor to break in upon it.
    For faith and love do here specially take the lead, and work in hidden ways,in this most holy, most supremely excellent sacrament.

    God, who is eternal, and incomprehensible, and of infinite power, doeth things great and unsearchable in heaven and in earth, and there is no tracing out of his marvellous works.

    If the works of God were such, as that they might be easily comprehended by human reason, they could not be justly called marvellous or unspeakable. ”

    last words of the “Imitation of Christ” by Thomas a Kempis. I found the book yesterday on a book shelf in the cottage where i’m camped out. Didn’t read the whole thing – just skipped to the end to see where he ends up. Probably just where he started? Philosophy is good sport and God plays along with us i’m sure.

    I’d add to Dan’s line…a line from a Joe Jackson song. “It’s not what you do – but the way that you do it.”

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