Category Archives: Epistemology

How are you in love? Tell me about that. The big Nikki love. Tell me about it, I wanna understand it.

-Tiffany
Silver Linings Playbook, dir. David O. Russell

Look at me. I am Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) in Silver Linings Playbook. I am hot. I am angry. I have been running after you and I want to know what it is I am missing.

Replace “Nikki” with “God” in the quote.

American Protestants talk a lot about God’s love, as though they feel it. They talk about their relationship with God as if God talks to them.

I used to claim similar things: “Jesus loves you. I know it – because he loves me.” “I think God’s trying to teach me __[humility, trust, patience – insert Christianese term here]__.” Those kinds of claims sound hyperbolic and largely meaningless to me now.

What did I mean by “I know Jesus loves me” or “God’s trying to teach me ___”? At the time I honestly believed in God’s love and instruction. I believed it because of my church’s (and my own) interpretation of the Bible, because I trusted the authority of my spiritual parents and predecessors, because I had certain aesthetic, emotional and/or psychological experiences I interpreted as being ordered somehow by God.

But in the last few years I stopped making these kinds of claims and tried to speak more accurately about my experience of faith. I stopped positing most claims of “Yes, I felt God hug me this morning” or “God made me miss my bus so I could meet an old lady at the bus stop and help her on”. I began to say only what I could derive from the Bible (sometimes tradition). This allowed me to maintain my integrity of proclamation, be true to my experience, say things I thought were true, still engage in Christian conversation, and challenge unfounded notions about the activity of God in our world.

I think many of my friends cause themselves to believe that God is communicating or acting in ways God is not. And I think this is dangerous. There is a reason Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac fills non-Christians with terror while inspiring Christians with hope. The Christians celebrate Abraham’s trust in God’s wisdom and sovereignty. Non-Christians fear what filicide or other tragedy will happen next by someone claiming they hear the voice of God.

I imagine my friends who say they talk with God and feel His love think those interactions are really happening but are misguided. I do not want to project my former (believed) experience of God on others: I simply may not have had that “touchy-feely” kind of relationship with God. I was what might be called a “wintry Christian”. Because of psychological issues I distrust my emotions and try to separate emotional responses from my beliefs.

Perhaps I am all wrong: perhaps my friends really do hear from or feel God and God just never willed that kind of relationship for me (for which I would be pissed, but that is for another post).

So: “Tell me about it”.

Christians, would you say God communicates to you? How? Do my friends sound too mystic regarding God’s communication? Do they sound too restricted, Bible-based? What quality/quantity of communication indicates a person might not have a relationship with God? What quality/quantity of “communication” indicates a person might be imagining things?

Post-Christians, did you (like me) discard the moniker “Christian” because of the “silence of God” in your life? Were there times you thought God was communicating with you? Do you still think God formerly communicated with you?

Non-Christians, have you ever thought it was possible a transcendent being was trying to communicate with you? Why are so many people convinced a transcendent being communicates with them? What criteria should they examine to determine whether they are right or not?

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13 Questions Every Christian Must Eventually Ask Themselves

This succinctly summarizes many of the questions I have and will continue to ask in my life (and my blog).

Stephen Mattson

 

During the Christian spiritual journey, followers of Christ are forced to eventually face some basic faith-related questions. Here are a few of the most common ones:

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The problem of Christian pluralism

Coming to Duke was a weird experience.

I was coming from a quite conservative Protestant background and, not to mention thinking practiced homosexuality was sin, thought even ordaining women was problematic. Funny thing for me to end up at Duke then – a place where both acts receive varying amounts of approval (and disapproval, to be sure). I knew this would be the case however, and came because I was tired of the standard conservative discussions of the Bible I was privy to, discussions which I thought read Jesus into every passage and made conclusions based on doctrine rather than what was present in the text at hand.

Duke has been a change from that. I appreciate the close reading and thoughtful discussions encouraged here. However, being here has taught me that my former “opponents”, “the liberals”, actually do care about and read the Bible (much to the chagrin of conservatives who would say they do not).

This presented a problem: if the people here are trying to take the Bible seriously, why do they come to so many different conclusions? Is there not “one Lord, one faith, one baptism”, to cite Paul? Why is there the plurality of belief and practice?

There are at least two (perhaps a plurality of) perspectives on this question’s answer. One, God somehow inspired the many voices making up the Bible, and loves and guides the various expressions — of diverse peoples, languages, backgrounds, politics, etc. — of the Church (while graciously allowing some errors, explaining discrepancies in doctrine/praxis). Another perspective, there is no god, only clever people trying to patch together a system of belief, which thus explains the inconsistencies within the Bible and within the religion Christianity.

The second perspective appealed more to me after initial consideration though I am currently undecided.

Christians, the plurality within Christianity seems microcosmic of the plurality of world religions – if true, does this complicate claims about the unique truth of Jesus as “the way, the truth and the life”? How do you reconcile this plurality with the singularity of truth that you claim?

Non-/Post-Christians, there seems to be a surprising unity within the Bible considering its drawn-out time and myriad places of composition. What case can be made for the Bible’s origins being solely human?

Miracle?

Recently a friend asked me how I would respond if I witnessed a miracle, something that could only be explained with supernatural causes, right now.

I said first it would scare the shit out of me.

Then I would question it: I would want to know why god wanted to reveal a miracle to me, what god’s purpose was in doing that; I would want to know all the details – what really happened, and how, etc. I hate ambiguity. I learned this through studying language – I always want to know why there are the slightest exceptions to grammatical rules. This hatred also explains my very direct romantic attempts/approach: if I’m interested in someone I do not beat around the bush about it (usually).

I had to also confess to my friend that I could become completely bogged down in these questions, perhaps much as I am currently in my faith life. Perhaps I ought to let things be, but I cannot find myself able to do so.

Eventually I told him I would emotionally “shut down” to the experience. My friend said this – the emotional reaction – is what he wanted me to tell him about the whole time. I distrust my emotions. I have a history of clinical depression, anxiety (social- and stress-induced), panic attacks, slight-OCD and paranoia: after this deluge of emotion mixed in with my faith life it is hard to let myself trust or give myself over to my emotions ever. Because of this, I think it is possible I would seek a way to explain the miracle away so I did not have to emotionally respond to it at all.

Donald Miller writes in Blue Like Jazz that people do not walk away from Christianity for intellectual reasons but for emotional ones. I think it is important to recognize the role emotion plays in belief. Anyone who denies emotion affects belief – be they deist or Marxist or naturalist or Catholic – is wrong: it is a Modern dream that people believe things solely because they are empirical or rational. We believe things because of reason, we hope, but also because of the community we were raised in, the community and place we are currently in, the preferences we have, the emotions we have, the bodies we have, the wills we have. I think belief is largely a choice but maybe not even wholly a choice. Perhaps Paul was on to something when he said faith was a gift of God.

I hope to engage these ideas – the role of factors other than intellect, especially emotion or place, on our beliefs; why I have walked away from Christianity; etc. – further in future posts. But for now suffice it to say that I may not be open to a miracle even if I saw one. A different friend of mine said as much happened to him – he saw miracles while in Haiti but did not allow them to affect him or his faith at all. Jesus spoke to this: he said that many will see but not perceive or hear but not understand.

If so, what could I do in the event of a miracle? I think I could only respond as my conscience best dictated, trying to open my mind to the real possibility of the miracle but simultaneously relying on my best judgment and Ockham’s razor. I think I would be an uncomfortable incarnation of believer and devil’s advocate. I think I would be much as I am now.

Questions: A) Why do miracles always seem to be unverified by modern, critical methods? Is it because verifying them would somehow miss the point? Or is it because the only miracles that can persist are the unverifiable ones, the hoaxes? B) Why would God want to avoid verification? C) Can people blind themselves to truth? Or, can/does God blind people to God/the truth (i.e., am I Calvinistically-, soteriologically-fucked)?

Intellectual Arrogance

Another problem I have been musing about is people’s intellectual arrogance.

Both Christians and atheists, and even I as an agnostic, feel they hold some special knowledge over other groups. For example, Christopher Hitchens writes in ch. 5 of god is Not Great “Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody had the smallest idea what was going on”. While many would sympathize with him and this notion, the arrogance seems painfully obvious to me. He is claiming that, as opposed to before, we actually understand our world now: the age of reason with its empiricism and naturalism has ushered in that long awaited special gnosis (knowledge) to reveal truth and falsehood. I don’t think empiricism is fundamentally flawed, but have not advances in physics revolutionized our understanding of things even in the past 100 years? And more than once, if I am right — relativity, than quark and string theories? I know so little of physics, but I know enough to appreciate that there will always be new evidence, new ways of interpreting and understanding what we observe. To think we “get it” now, or at any age in any culture, is hubris.

One need not look far for the same sentiments, about having that special knowledge, among Christians. That Christians “get it”, have the truth about reality, is a basic presupposition on which all the my faith communities of my life have operated. Were it not so, where would the compulsion to evangelize come from?

Why is this intellectual arrogance problematic? It keeps us from listening to one another. This happens to me frequently, in many topics. I think I really know what I’m talking about and thus don’t care to really listen to what the other person has to say. This belief ends up hurting me and my conversation partner because instead of speaking to them I end up speaking past them. I imagine we all have experienced or done this, certainly with strangers (emphasis on strange, right?) but even with friends and family members. Instead of being open to and receiving new insights, we preclude even their existence.

There are other problems with intellectual arrogance. I would love to hear what you think they are. In closing I would add an exhortation given by my undergrad philosophy teacher: that we strive for intellectual humility. He thought that Jesus himself possessed and demonstrated this virtue. I think whether I am religious or not I would benefit from it.

Questions: A) Do our basic beliefs (truth comes from revelation/truth comes from empirical measurements/truth might come from both) necessarily make dialogue futile? B) If not, how do people making truth claims (there is a/no god) also truly hear and engage observations, interpretations and arguments from another group, without prejudice? C) Discussing faith, how far can one concede arguments to an opponent and still maintain her basic positions?