Beyond Belief: Logic and Reality

In the belief conversation, I have extolled the gift of reason, stressed the importance of examining the evidence of God’s action in our lives and made a case for employing logic as the basis for formulating belief.  Is my western bias showing? 

Western thought is heavily influenced by Greek philosophy.  We prize Aristotelian logic and put a premium on logical consistency.  Proving something is true is equivalent to proving its opposite is false.  Something and its opposite cannot be simultaneously true.  While this logic is intellectually satisfying, and makes us feel like we know something with certainty, it might leave much of reality in the dark.  For all our technological achievements and advancement of scientific knowledge, we moderns may actually be less in touch with reality than ancient thinkers.  

Before Greek thought percolated and permeated the western world, how did the ancients understand reality, and what did they believe?  Early believers in the God of Abraham understood God to be so unlike man, or anything that man could conceive, that a cornerstone of their theology was man doesn’t know and can’t know God.  They understood reality to exist in the tension between polar opposites that are simultaneously true.  The nature of God is at once transcendent (otherworldly) and immanent (present at every moment).  God champions justice and at the same time gives mercy.  God is concealed (eludes direct observation) and also intervenes (touches us directly).  This balanced thinking describes Jewish theology to this day.  

The Jewish tradition also sees the reality of human nature as held in the tension between polar opposites.  Man can be obedient to God’s will but also sins.  Man lives in faith and in fear.  God gives man collective responsibility (covenants with groups of people) and individual responsibility.  Don’t we see this pull to opposite extremes in religious life today?  I know a deeply spiritual man who feels fervently convicted of the righteousness of one extreme in the homosexual clergy debate.  As deeply as he knows he is right, I know he is wrong.  I respect his piety and his sincerity, and I have no doubt that God is pulling him to his belief just as I know God is pulling me to mine.  I don’t think God is playing games with us, though.  I think he is leading us to deeper truths that exist on both sides of the matter.  I think he is drawing us into tension to reveal a complex reality that lies outside the simple circle of Aristotelian if-I’m-right-then-you’re-wrong logic. 

Polarity is essential to our understanding of the very nature of existence.  Light has no meaning without darkness.  Order is meaningless without chaos.  How could we appreciate goodness if there were no evil?  Even our scientific understanding of physical reality invokes opposites.  Light simultaneously exhibits the nature of particles and waves. 

Perhaps we can find hope in this reality of opposites.  Sin in all its horror precipitates the glory of being redeemed.  Maybe suffering exists to reveal the miracle of healing. 

Join the conversation.  What polar opposites do you believe are simultaneously true?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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Creation Beliefs

Christianity represents a great diversity of belief.  With more than 30,000 denominations worldwide, Christian beliefs diverge on literal versus allegorical biblical interpretations of creation, the virgin birth, and physical resurrection.  Even within denominations beliefs diverge vehemently on what kind of love is considered sinful and who is fit to serve the body of believers.  One point of divergence hotly debated on the political stage (as it impacts public education) and targeted by atheist commentators is belief about God’s role in the creation of the universe.  If I assent to God’s existence and his presence at creation, I might naturally wonder about his role in creation and what that says about the nature of God.  Here are three possible beliefs and their implications for relating to God. 

If I believe biblical creation stories are historical accounts rather than allegories and I believe God created a fossil record that appears to be millions of years older than it actually is, then I believe God is tricky.  He gave me the gift of reason, but I can’t always use it to perceive truth.  Sometimes I am supposed to use reason and evidence, and sometimes I am supposed to reject reason and evidence.  That’s particularly problematic when it comes to discerning God’s will for me individually.  How will I sniff out a cozening charismatic who asserts something is God’s will despite what my intellectual, emotional or physical sense tells me if I cannot rely on the evidence?  Hearing God requires a special kind of listening.  It will be much harder to perceive God’s movement in my life if I believe evidence can’t be trusted.  

If I believe God created space, time, energy and the laws of physics and then let the dice roll without any involvement or interaction subsequent to the initial point of creation, I might understand the nature of God to be remote.  I might consider humanity one great big experiment.  Any special talents unique to me are not so much God-given gifts entrusted to me out of love as they are a lucky roll of the dice.  It detracts from gratitude.  There’s no one to thank for a lucky break and there’s no one to ask for help.  It discourages philanthropy, suggesting no obligation to fellow man or stewardship for blessings.  If I feel anonymous to God, I won’t relate to him in an individual and intimate way. 

If I believe God’s purpose in creation was to be in relationship, then I believe God gets involved in my life in a personal and intimate way.  Do I believe God is fully present, standing with me and in me at all times?  Or do I believe God drops in on an intervention basis only?  

What do creation beliefs have to do with healing or spiritual growth?  They inform my understanding of the nature of God and how I relate to him.  Will I give God all I have and ask him to do the miracle of making it enough?  Or will I go it alone with self-help?

Join the conversation.  Toss in your ideas about the origin of the universe.

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.acrosstraditions.com

Do Beliefs Matter?

Preoccupation with belief is a distinctly Christian attribute.  Its origins trace to a concept introduced by the first century Jesus movement, namely that belief in Jesus, or more specifically that the person of Jesus was fully human and simultaneously fully divine, confers eternal life in some fashion.  The gospel of John, written significantly later than the other accounts, is the only one to put such an emphasis on belief.  One statement, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die,” (John 11:25-26) immortalized in canon two startlingly new concepts that thereafter marked Christianity.  The concepts are (1) beliefs have consequences and (2) the possibility of life after death.  

Other religious traditions don’t emphasize belief.  Jews care more about what one does than what one believes.  Whether I am deeply conflicted about what action to choose or I’m steadfast, it’s of no consequence if in the end I chose the right action.  Action matters.  In Buddhism, it’s perception and understanding that matter.  Believing without perceiving or understanding is a construct that has no merit or usefulness in Buddhism. 

Beliefs do influence our choices, however, and thus do have consequences.  Beliefs inform actions which form habits which reflect character.  My understanding of God’s nature influences how I respond to him.  We are responding to God all the time, whether or not we are aware of it.  Especially when we are looking for life change—significant emotional healing or life change—the road we take depends on our understanding of God.  If we are seeking God-help rather than relying solely on self-help, we will ask God to do something for us that we cannot do on our own unaided.  Our beliefs inform how we approach that request.  

The Old Testament recounts story after story of people saved by faith.  The New Testament makes many references to people healed by their faith.  Our faith is what we believe about God’s ability and his inclination to intervene for us.  If we lack belief in God’s power, we can go through the motions of searching ourselves for what needs to change, but we are unlikely surrender our way (that has led to despair) for God’s way (that leads to healing). 

The Twelve Step tradition teaches recovery seekers are not prepared to embark on the Fourth Step moral inventory until they have an understanding of God and also a willingness to trust God based on that understanding.  Significantly, the Twelve Step tradition does not dictate what that understanding should be.  It simply asserts that an understanding and trust are necessary 

Join the conversation.  What is your understanding of God?  What difference do your beliefs make? 

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Coming to Belief: Physics and Faith

 In the continuing conversation about coming to spiritual belief, examining how we come to scientific belief makes for interesting, and perhaps surprising, comparisons.  We arrive at our beliefs about all kinds of things—the character of friends and coworkers, social systems like workplace culture, and the natural world—via a process akin to the scientific method.  We posit an assumption, make observations, and adjust assumptions as the evidence comes in.  Recent posts reveal I also think this is how many people come to belief in God

The scientific method is not always conclusive, though, not even in science.  Theoretical physicists working on string theory have a knack for formulating hard to test hypotheses that elude scientific evidence.   Some physicists have devoted decades, their whole careers, to developing string theory, which has yet to produce scientific evidence.  

Harvard Professor of Psychology Daniel Gilbert in an essay titled “The Vagaries of Religious Experience” states, “The most fundamental principle of science is that beliefs must be predicated on empirical evidence—things that everyone can see, touch, taste, and measure,” and he uses that test of evidence to invalidate religious belief.  That logic has several flaws.  

First, it misrepresents the nature of scientific evidence.  None of the evidence quantum physicists work with is human sensory perceptible via sight touch, taste, etc.   Quantum physics amply illustrates that some truths are beyond the ability of the human five senses to perceive and are at the edge of the human capacity to comprehend.  Second, some people are more perceptive than others.  CalTech Professor of Physics Richard Feynman was exceptionally perceptive.  He perceived truths that were out of reach for most of his esteemed peers.  Similarly, individuals with a robust spirituality perceive the evidence of God’s action in their lives in ways the less perceptive among us miss.  The perceptive ones are able to detect evidence not obvious to everyone.  No one claimed Richard Fynman’s perceptions were invalid because others couldn’t replicate them, yet spiritual perception does come under this attack.  A third flaw is this view doesn’t appreciate how much scientific work happens before the proof point.  

Mathematician and philosopher Reuben Hersh in What is Mathematics, Really? draws an apt analogy that applies here.  He describes the day-to-day work of mathematicians like the operation of a restaurant, where there is a front, a dining room that is quiet, neat and orderly, and a back, the kitchen where things are not always neat and orderly.  Hersh says the front of mathematics is formal and precise with axioms and rigorous proofs, while “math in back is fragmentary, informal, intuitive, tentative.  We try this or that.  We say ‘maybe’ or ‘it looks like.’” 

The idea that everything in science is proven, or provable, is a front room perception.  That’s not how science really works.  Physicists working on string theory are doing science in back.  They know that operating with tentative beliefs for which there is not conclusive scientific evidence is the only way to perceive some truths.  

So it is with spirituality.  Faith in front appears tidy.  Believers don’t question or doubt or grow.  Those actively engaged in spiritual growth, however, experience faith in back.  Like theoretical physicists, they know that operating with hypotheses for which there may not be conclusive evidence is the only way to perceive some truths.  

Join the conversation.  What’s your experience of the search for truth in physics or in faith? 

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Coming to Belief in God

Are you ever asked what you believe and why?  Do you ask yourself?  Most of what we believe is based on evidence.  Belief that the sun will rise tomorrow is based on the evidence of experience.  Belief that a friend will keep her word might be based on the evidence of experience with the friend specifically or with people in general.  If I think of faith as belief without evidence, I could say I have faith that my friend will keep her word despite evidence to the contrary.  Furthermore, we all believe some things we can’t prove.  

Some people come to belief in God through a dramatic or miraculous experience.  I once worked with a man who described being an agnostic and hopeless drug addict for many years before Jesus appeared to him and cured his addiction in a single encounter.  It was a memorable testimony of healing and life change.  Many people, especially young people struggling with their faith, yearn for a dramatic sign.  They want decisive evidence on which to predicate belief in God.  Some get it.  Most of us don’t. 

Most of us come to belief in God through a process akin to the scientific method.  The body of modern scientific knowledge has been built using a method of assuming hypotheses, testing them, gathering evidence and concluding whether the evidence supports the hypotheses.  If contrary or inconsistent evidence is observed, then a hypothesis needs adjustment.  We can find God this way, too.  

If a leap of faith isn’t within reach, formulate a hypothesis and make observations.  If you are beginning to explore spirituality, assume God exists and is good.  If you have a robust spiritual life already, focus on some question of faith burning inside you at present.  For example, you might assume God has laid down an abundance of grace that is enough to heal you completely for all time if only you reach out and lay a hand upon it.  Or you might assume that there is meaning in suffering and although it pains God, who is infinitely vulnerable to us, he uses all the loose and frayed ends in our lives even when the meaning of our suffering lies beyond our human ability to perceive or to comprehend.  Treat this hypothesis as a tentative or provisional belief.  Live your life and observe evidence that supports or contradicts the assumption.  

When something in life trips you up, as is inevitable for us all, examine your choices and actions within the framework of your belief.  Do the actions and reactions make sense?  Can you understand the forces at work?  If it doesn’t add up, reevaluate what you believe in light of new experience.  In the absence of inconsistencies or contrary evidence, you might get comfortable with the hypothesis and assume yet another building on it.  Here, your state of belief might be partially evidence-based (a long run of experience without contrary evidence) and partially faith-based (you may desire more evidence).  Don’t conceptualize God’s nature based on what you want to be true.  Rather, develop your powers of observation.  If you seek spiritual growth, give God your provisional trust and give the experiment time to yield evidence. 

Join the conversation.  What do you believe that you can’t prove?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Emptiness

How many of us have asked, “Is this all there is?”  We burn the candle at both ends with work commitments, volunteer commitments and family commitments (sometimes in that order), and on top of that we work hard to schedule time for ourselves, for exercise and for entertainment.  Weeks dissolve into months, and at the end of it we’re exhausted and perhaps overwhelmed by the multiple simultaneous sound tracks creating noise in our heads.  We feel like there has to be more in life, but in reality, there is already too much. 

How can we step off the treadmill and find more meaning with less doing?  Many traditions embrace the idea of emptiness—both emptying the mind to encounter the soul and, more especially, emptying oneself of one way of being to make space for a new way of becoming.  There is a Jewish saying  that you can’t pour into a full cup.  “Islam” translates roughly to “surrender.”  Eastern traditions employ several meditation practices to transcend self.  Even in nature many things cease to be one thing in order to become something else.  A seed ceases being a seed in order to become a tree.  Emptiness may hurt, but it is also our best hope for the healing and life change we seek. 

Recent posts explored what it means to rely on God-help rather than self-help when seeking life change and renewal.  The Twelve Step addiction recovery tradition offers special wisdom on this point.  Recovery seekers know that one has to create a power vacuum in order to make space for God’s power to enter.  They recognize this wisdom as the Third Step, or making “a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” 

As logical as this emptying sounds, it is incredibly difficult to do.  We can become deathly attached to our own desires.  Pharaoh is the Bible’s biggest loser.  He was willing to endure any number of plagues and to lose everything rather than doing a Third Step.  When talking about surrendering our earthly desires, attachments and plans to make space for God’s power and care in a Third Step, recovery seekers invariably talk of “taking it back” at some point in the journey. 

At least recovery seekers recognize that it’s either God’s will or their own will in the driver’s seat.  Many religious seekers hope for a little auxiliary God-help without taking the difficult step of surrendering their own will.  Sometimes we want God to be almighty on our terms. 

Join the conversation.  What practices help you empty yourself and surrender your will?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Self-Help vs. God-Help: A Remedial Approach

The last post discussed putting faith and hope in God’s heavy lifting, but what if you don’t have that kind of relationship with God?  What if you desire life change but don’t believe in a higher power that is loving and intent on helping you, or if you’re unsure what you believe? 

My personal experience goes against Twelve Step wisdom on this point.  The Twelve Steps encourage turning one’s care and will over to God at the start of the journey to recovery and renewal.  If you are aware of something in your life that needs healing or change, but you’re not in a place to turn it all over to a higher power, I encourage you to embark on the journey on a self-help basis.  Here’s why. 

My first real experience of life change was shortly after college.  I was motivated to change because the evidence amply demonstrated my old way of being wasn’t working.  I analyzed and thought my way into new behavior patterns that yielded better results.  My perspective then was that I did it under my own intellectual power.  Looking back on the experience calls to mind a once-popular greeting card poem that inspired many to look on their life struggles differently. 

 One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord.
             Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.
                  In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand.
                       Sometimes there were two sets of footprints,
                           other times there were one set of footprints.
 
                                  This bothered me because I noticed
                                that during the low periods of my life,
                             when I was suffering from
                         anguish, sorrow or defeat,
                     I could see only one set of footprints.
 
          So I said to the Lord,
      “You promised me Lord,
         that if I followed you,
             you would walk with me always.
                   But I have noticed that during
                          the most trying periods of my life
                                 there have only been one
                                       set of footprints in the sand.
                                           Why, when I needed you most,
                                          you have not been there for me?”
 
                                 The Lord replied,
                          “The times when you have
                  seen only one set of footprints,
          is when I carried you.”
                                                   Mary Stevenson (1922 – 1999)

When I look back, I see one set of footprints in the sand.  That much is clear.  I was sure they were mine at the time, but from a vantage point 20 years later, I now believe God was doing the heavy lifting that I attributed to my youthful intellect. 

I was a physics major so I’m drawn to scientific analogies.  Here’s one.  Black holes emit radiation unfazed by whether you believe in black hole radiation or whether you have even bothered to examine the evidence about them.  The fact that you don’t believe in God doesn’t alter the fact that he loves you and acts in your life for your good.  So go through the motions under your own power.  You might meet God along the way! 

Join the conversation.  Have you ever discovered God in the midst of your self-help?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.