I recently had a discussion with an acquaintance of mine about beliefs, worldviews, religious assumptions, the whole shebang. It was a fascinating conversation, and frankly I wish I had a recording of the whole thing. A number of topics came up and I both listened and provided some of my own points. This person, whom I’ll call Bill, identifies himself as a Christian and has, from what I could gather, at the very least dabbled in apologetics. So while it was not a full-blown debate, we did enjoy an engaging discussion and I hope to pick it up again sometime.
One of the points I did emphasize, as in my writings, was the believer’s need to rely on imagination as a substitute for knowledge acquired and validated by means of reason in order to be a faithful believer. It was clear from context that when I spoke of the role of imagination in religious belief and when Bill spoke of faith, we were essentially talking about the same thing. It’s as though this natural correspondence between the two had an irresistible centrifugal force of its own.
Toward the end of our lively discussion, Bill gave a poignant speech summarizing the points he wanted me to continue to consider. I was able to jot down some notes, so the paragraph below is pretty faithful to what Bill stated in our conversation. It was at this point when he succinctly encapsulated what many believers would probably want to say to non-believers in such circumstances. The following words represent the capstone of his attempts to persuade me to his religious views:
I understand your concerns, as have many Christians throughout the centuries. Many have already wrestled with the kinds of concerns you’ve raised only to find their faith in the Lord strengthened as a result of testing. I suggest starting with what God says about Himself. He revealed Himself to us through Jesus and the Words of the Gospel. Jesus walked among us, here for us to see. God is not our enemy. He desires to save us all from self-destruction. God says “ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13).
Bill’s reference to “testing” stood out to me because all of what he did say is expressly untestable. The way Bill used the word “testing” was somewhat ambiguous as to who performed the testing in mind: did those who “wrestled” with concerns and doubts grow in their faith because they conducted tests to prove a set of hypotheses? Or, did they grow in their faith because “The Lord” tested them and they prevailed, and there’s no other explanation for the increase they supposedly experienced? If it’s the former option, how rigorous were those tests and can they be reproduced with the same outcomes? If it’s the latter, how does one test that? I’m all for testing, so let’s test prayer. (On that note, I still don’t have 20/20 vision.)
Another point which stood out for me was Bill’s suggestion about starting. One’s starting point is critical, of course, and I did raise the issue of starting points in my discussion with him. By the time he stated the summary I quote above, however, it was clear to me that my points had not sunk in. Given his own statements, I can only presume that Bill considers where one starts to be an important issue. But if the discussion revolves around the debate of whether or not Christianity is even true, especially after raising the issue of starting with existence vs. starting with non-existence and starting with what is real vs. starting with something that is merely imaginary, the suggestion that one “start… with what God says about Himself” could only mean that my points were backburnered. It also tells me that Bill thought that consideration of his religious beliefs requires a special advantage – just start with the assumption that they’re true! – which is granted to virtually nothing else in this world.
What does it mean to say “start… with what God says about Himself”? At the very least, it means to start by granting validity to the notion “God” as a meaningful reference point. It could not be a concept, for concepts are mental integrations of two or more units, and there’s supposed to be only one god. Besides, “God” is not supposed to be a psychological phenomenon – something only in an individual’s mind, but rather an extramental object – something that allegedly exists outside of everyone’s mind. If it is a proper name, what exactly is it naming? A believer might say it’s a “spirit.” But does that get any closer to an objective meaning? And by what means would anyone have awareness of this “spirit” if indeed it is extramental – existing outside man’s mind?
Time and again we come back to the fact that we cannot acquire awareness of “God” by looking outward, for when we look outward we don’t find spirits – rather we find material objects: trees, streets, fences, chairs, kitchenware, shoes, children’s toys, dirt, clouds, etc. So to contemplate the notion “God” we need to start by looking inward, and this only draws attention to the psychological faculty which I had discussed in my conversation with Bill, namely the imagination. The imagination, as I explained to Bill, is the active ingredient of religious belief. This is why religious believers will urge non-believers to start with their god and what it has allegedly said: we have no alternative but to look inward and consult the contents of our imagination. We won’t get to “God” if we focus on what we find by looking outward - even if things we find in the world around us puzzling or mystifying, we still have to retreat into our imagination to suppose that a supernatural being is behind it all. While I can have no awareness of what exists beyond the stars, I am aware of when I’m imagining.
What informs our imagination when we contemplate “God”? Bill provides the answer to this when he characterizes religious writings as “what God says about Himself,” for these writings are characterized as having been authored by the deity in question. Of course, they were written by human beings many centuries ago who were just as prone to engaging their imagination as we are today. And those writings are quite imaginative, not entirely unlike today’s supernatural fiction – e.g., Harry Potter, Stephen King, etc. Taken seriously as philosophical content, they inform what I affectionately call the storybook worldview.
Then there’s this notion that this deity “revealed Himself to us through Jesus.” Yet there were believers in this deity before the Christ story started circulating, and I would surmise that, if we were able to survey them, they too would say that their deity had revealed itself to them as well. But what’s with this “us” stuff? If the stories in the Christian bible constitute “revelation” to people living today, that again points right back to the imagination as the active ingredient here. “Revelation,” then, is simply a euphemism for bringing a story to life in one’s imagination and treating it as though it were non-fiction. This is really the only way to make sense of what Bill had stated, especially since he includes people alive today by his use of “us,” which of course he must mean since he would want his religious beliefs to apply to people living today. Otherwise, what’s the point of proselytizing?
But to then say that “Jesus walked among us” is even more misleading, for even according to the biblical stories, the Jesus of the gospels did not “walk among us” if “us” includes people living today! It’s not as though anyone reading this blog entry today could have had an opportunity to sit in the audience of one of Jesus’ sermons, witnessed one of his miracles, or gone to him for a wonder cure. None of us can dial up Jesus on the phone and ask why he cursed the fig tree or what he meant by the parable of the sower – he’d probably just say something like “let him who hath ears hear” anyway, which of course is not very helpful if one is confused by Jesus’ riddles. None of us – Bill included – was there.
If these religious teachings are so true, why would one need to resort to misleading statements like this to push them? Why would one need to ignore the need to start from the fact that existence exists in order to argue for one’s position? Why conceal the need to interact psychologically with stories in order to contemplate these religious beliefs? Why leave the question “how do you know?” so stranded out in the cold that it dies of frostbite?
Bill said that his god “is not our enemy” but that it “desires to save us all from self-destruction.” It’s true that many people self-destruct, and they do so for any number of reasons, whether they just lost motivation to continue moving forward, they’ve suffered one too many debilitating strikes in life, they’ve chosen to mix their lives up with poor influencers, other bad choices have finally caught up with them, or they’ve been stricken with a terrible disease. Some, at least here in the west, have had it so easy in life that they shrink on their first encounter with adversity. But if the creator of the universe has any desires, what could possibly confound them? How could it be the case that any being in “God’s creation” could possibly be on the path to self-destruction unless the creator of the universe, which calls all the shots in creation, intended it? On the one hand we’re told to believe that the universe was created by an omnipotent supernatural being which “controls whatsoever comes to pass” (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 160), and yet on the other hand our lives are characterized as though we had a choice in anything we do. These two viewpoints are mutually contradictory, and the attempt to persuade a person into accepting a deterministic view of reality, such as religion necessarily entails, is performatively inconsistent with itself.
Bill did manage to slip one bible verse into his lecture, namely Jeremiah 29:13, which I repeat here:
And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.
This passage is stated as though it were a promise, but notice how it gives itself an automatic out: If someone seeks the Christian god and comes up empty, the believer can always say: “you didn’t search for God with all your heart!” That’s not quite what I would call a bankable guarantee, nor would I consider the phrase “with all your heart” the sign of a surefire method. Maybe the writer really means: “with all your imagination.”
by Dawson Bethrick
Thank you, Dawson, for another great entry.
Your latest brings to mind another that you penned some 13 years ago: Faith as Hope in the Imaginary. I should reread that that one!
Thanks once again!
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