Some words on faith

The Thinker by Rodin

I receive a comment today from John O’Brien. It is attached to an old entry Unsaved that I made back in 2003. His questions deserve a fuller answer. I will not answer all his questions here, because I have put my thoughts in other blog entries where I touched on religion and faith. Readers are welcome to check out these entries:

I would like to preface my remarks by saying that I do not claim to have all “the answers to life’s persistent questions”, as the radio detective Guy Noir puts it. I simply have my thoughts, informed by my unique experience and through learning. I respect everyone’s religious beliefs or lack thereof. In some cases, I may profoundly disagree with your beliefs themselves, but I do respect your right to believe in anything you wish.

Conversations on matters of faith are always iffy. Often there is a subtext to such discussions. It is, “I want to keep discussing things with you until you come around to my point of view”. This more often translates into “I want you to become a Christian/Muslim/Jew/Atheist/Moonie/Mormon just like me.” There are many people out there who want to save my soul. While I respect your wish to save my soul, I do not want you to save my soul. I do not open my door to proselytizers. I avoid public discussions of faith altogether. One thing I have learned painfully about the devoutly religious (and it probably applies to me as well): if you have your mind made up about the correctness of your faith, argument cannot change it. Only those without a faith can have an honest discussion on the merits of faith. Otherwise, you come into the discussion with a profound bias.

John wonders if there are parts of the Bible that I consider trustworthy. Yes, there are parts of the Bible: matters of historical record that have been proven as a result of archeology. I am very skeptical about certain alleged events like the miracle of the loaves and fishes, but others like the Sermon on the Mount seem quite plausible, although I suspect Jesus was paraphrased. I doubt someone was standing in the crowd taking notes.

His question on what authority can be accepted in one’s life implies an absolute and external standard of reference. Clearly if you believe in God, it is easy to posit an absolute standard of reference. Clearly, the Bible is one of many out there. For myself, I do not place faith in any absolute authority, which is why I am logically agnostic. Bertrand Russell has an answer that works fairly well for me:

I am constantly asked: What can you, with your cold rationalism, offer to the seeker after salvation that is comparable to the cozy homelike comfort of a fenced dogmatic creed? To this the answer is many-sided. In the first place, I do not say that I can offer as much happiness as is to be obtained by the abdication of reason. I do not say that I can offer as much happiness as is to be obtained from drink or drugs or amassing great wealth by swindling widows and orphans. It is not the happiness of the individual convert that concerns me; it is the happiness of mankind.

John asks if I believe there an acceptable authority, either internal or external. I think we must each answer that question ourselves. As creatures of free will, we can choose to submit to someone else’s will, or we can choose to think for ourselves. I choose the latter, but I have no problem with those who prefer the former. They seem to make up the overwhelming majority.

Is there any absolute standard of life to which I can relate? I am not very sure what John means here. For myself, I notice that our universe is ordered relatively, not absolutely. Einstein’s Theories of Relativity, for example suggest that everything made of mass or energy influences everything else. As you watch a train go by and you hear the pitch of the train’s whistle change as it passes, does the pitch actually change? It depends on the perspective of who is doing the listening. To the train’s engineer the pitch does not change. To someone watching it pass, it does change. Both are true at the same time. Einstein’s general and specific theories expand this idea to all the energy and matter in the universe. If I have a small article of faith, it is that I do not think I am really separate from anything else. I think our separateness is an illusion and we are both united and separate at the same time. For me, this renders the idea of absolutism absurd. I think the universe is an organism and we are part of it. For some this suggests that each of us is part of the mind of God. For more thoughts on this, check out my entry Our Wild, Wild Universe.

I hope this answers John’s questions though. I suspect though that it will more likely leave him confused.

2 thoughts on “Some words on faith

  1. (it’s a shame you don’t allow HTML codes for formatting – it makes my text look so run-on) . . . (quote) “Only those without a faith can have an honest discussion on the merits of faith. Otherwise, you come into the discussion with a profound bias.”

    In other words, as long as I enter into a discussion about something I’ve never personally experienced… and therefore something I have no firsthand knowledge of… then I can discuss it honestly and fairly. …or, as long as I don’t know what I’m talking about, then I can feel free to talk about it like an expert.

    Taken to a logical extrapolation on other subjects (after all, we can’t go around changing rules like this based on subject matter), then if I (as a supposed non-believer in sub-atomic particles) enter into a discussion with a man who wholeheartedly believes in subatomic particles like leptons, quarks, and gluons (who unknowingly is a nuclear physicist)… though I had never been educated in such matters, my arguments and viewpoints hold as much validity as his do…?

    First-hand knowledge (whether by education or personal experience) will always give a person a bias… because they know it to be true as proven in their own life & experience.

    But… it boils down to one thing – “faith” is not the real issue – God didn’t send his Son to bring us faith… He sent his Son to set us free, and to OFFER salvation – He didn’t come to force salvation upon anyone… only to offer it as a free gift.

    There are laws everywhere… natural laws, moral laws, societal laws, and the Law of God. Breaking a law makes us a lawbreaker – once we’ve broken one small law, we have become a law-breaker by definition – we can never say we’ve never broken a law, or we break yet another one – we lie (oops, we sinned again).

    The Law of God has been clearly laid out, once we have broken even one small part of it (like a lie), we owe the debt prescribed by the Law-giver – and His debt is “death”… for “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgivness”.

    THE blood has been shed on the Cross, God in Christ gave his life as a payment for our sins -offered as a free exchange for those who will believe.

    “Offered”… not forced.

    Everyone makes a choice to accept or reject it – that’s because, as you correctly stated, we are “creatures of free will”… but there is no “non-choice”… it’s either to accept it (and receive salvation and eternal life), or deny it and accept that you will pay for your own sins by eternal death.

    I don’t intend for you to print this, it’s not really meant for the “public”… but as it is your site, do as you please, just please don’t mis-quote.

  2. Hi Mark:

    When I write you with my comment, and asked about how one relates to an external authority, I was thinking along these lines.

    God wants to draw all men to Himself. This is not an impersonal mind force in charge of the universe, He is personal and full of love for me.
    God communicated His message of Who He is, What His attributes are, and what we mean to Him.
    If I were walking in my Garden and saw an ant hill and the ants were running about around it, and I needed to communicate with them about their place in my garden and that I needed them to move to a different location, how would I do it?
    I could in fact stand there and shout at them, even lay on my side and hold up written communication for them.
    Or I could become an ant, live with them, speak their language and get them to understand who they are, who I am and their place in my garden. That is what happened.
    My question to you in the comment was how do you relate to that Authority which is external to you. The authority is not something you thought up, or something coming from some ‘mind force’ in the universe.
    In relaity, we have a relationship with Him already. You cannot exist and not have one. I thing the better question is this: What is the ideal relationship with this authority?

    In you blog you talk about not wanting to go to the party unless you have been invited.
    God wants everybody in his club; he just won’t force anyone to come in. He gives us free will to reject him. But the better analogy is: Imagine a group of people who have all been convicted of some kind of crime and are on their way to prison. The offer of a presidential pardon for each of them is then announced. But each one must choose to accept the free gift. They may either continue on their way to prison or be free and clear. Who in their right mind would criticize the president for so magnanimous an action; it’s the people who refuse the pardon who are not in their right mind!

    In the past years, there was always been theory in the Biblical circles that the scriptures are not exact. The scholarship in the last 100 years always warned us that the scripture text cannot be exact and as soon as we find older scripts, we will see and have to explain away the variations found in them. Since the late 1800’s the script and books found date from 200 to 400 years older than when those words were expounded by scholars. They found absolutely no varations in the scrolls. We have letters that date 15 years after the events that inspired the letters, as well as the older copies. Again, the variations did not appear.
    I do not know what you mean when you talk about the exactness of the bible. could you enlarge?

    I have a completely different take to the Sermon on the mount. If some one was there and wrote something that Jesus did not say or he reported things not exactly as spoken, the writings would not be accepted by the rest who were there. Notice nothing took place in private and there were thousands of witnesses. That stopped the modern practice of bending the news to suit yourself. (not you Mark. I lived in Jeddah Saudi Arabia for ten years and I was a personal witness to many events that to place in the middle east and when I read about them in Time magazine or New York Post, I could hardly recognize the event as being the same as what I personally saw and in some cases, took part in.)

    If you don’t mind, I would like to keep this discussion going. I am not as expressive as yourself, for sure.

    So sum it up:
    Question is How does one relate to the external authority in the universe?
    I hope I enlarged on my question enough to make it clear.
    Thank you very much.
    John OBrien

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