A Way Back to Soul – Part 7

In my last post I referenced a recent interview with Bart Ehrman.  I then asked readers to consider following questions:

  • Is there really no place for the Ehrmans of the world within the church?
  • Is it inherently impossible to be both an agnostic and a Christian?

I think these are two very important questions because of two opinions I hold:

  • I suspect that most American Christians, if not Christians around the world, are functional agnostics.
  • I suspect that most people who take the time to truly study the history of the formation of the organized Christianity will conclude that organized Christianity has taken a path that bears little resemblance to the compelling story of the poor Jewish carpenter described in the Gospels.

You may want to argue with my opinions, but let me unpack my thoughts a bit more before you write me off….

Consider one indisputable “fact” from the world of neuroscience: Human perception is inherently untrustworthy.  Those who’ve heard me speak on this subject have heard me quote the respected etymologist/philosopher E.O. Wilson:

The brain is a machine designed not for understanding, but for survival. Consilience (1998), p. 96

Research on the human brain has more than adequately demonstrated that this amazing organ is capable of absolutely convincing human-beings that false is true.  I think E.O. Wilson, along with about 4 billion neuroscientists (give or take a billion) would agree with this statement:

If your brain believes you must perceive the presence of a loving God in order to get you up in the morning, then your brain is more than capable of creating that illusion.

Now, to me, this conclusion is as obvious as gravity or the inherent superiority of Texas over Oklahoma.  What puzzles me is how troubled Christians are by this statement.  I should be more specific.  I understand why Christians who have never been offered a thoughtful study of how science and faith can enrich each other would be agitated by this assertion.  What puzzles me most is how vexing this statement is for very well-informed and scientifically astute Christians.

It seems that Christians think I’m saying something like, “Because the brain is capable of creating the illusion of God, there must not be a God.”  Nothing could be farther from my position.

Consider this dilemma.  Christianity is built upon thousands of years of Jewish and Christian perceptions.  All of scripture is ultimately the story of experiences that individuals and groups perceived as the work of God.  Science has demonstrated that human perception is faulty, and so there is no possible way to “prove” that any perception provides evidence for Truth.

One way of summarizing the message of Jesus would be this:

There is a loving God who is redeeming a very broken creation.  I’m telling you and showing you that God’s method of redemption is sacrificial love.  If you want to live a meaningful life in God’s Kingdom, then you will follow me by committing yourself to overcoming your inherent selfishness and living a life of sacrificial love.

It’s simply not possible to “prove” that this is true, which is why we Christians say a person must make this commitment “in faith.”

Now, tell me if my thinking is muddled at this point, but follow this logic:

  • An agnostic someone who is simply saying, “I don’t know” when it comes to the existence of God.
  • Christianity is built upon a story that cannot possibly be “proven” to be true.
  • Therefore, Christians, by definition, must also be agnostics.

On this important weekend in the life of our Church, I’m especially interested in hearing from my minister-friends on this.  As much as I’m guilty of just tipping sacred cows to listen to them moo, I actually think this line of thinking is crucial for the Church.  I’ve sat in my office with hundreds of people who have dropped out of organized religion because they “perceived” that there’s no place for someone who declares, “I don’t know if any of it is ‘true,’ but I’m seeking to follow anyway.”

So, I suppose I would frame the question like this:

What are you afraid would happen to Christianity if preachers declared, “Of course you don’t have to believe the story is true.  It’s more than enough to live as if it is true.”

He is risen. (Yep, I faith it.)
Wes

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About Wes Eades

I've been a pastoral counselor, marital therapist, and overall listening ear since about 1989 or so.
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5 Responses to A Way Back to Soul – Part 7

  1. Alison says:

    I believe this post speaks to me on this Easter Sunday more fully than any sermon I will be listening to this morning. And my response to your question is that I am not afraid of what would happen to Christianity if preachers declared the truth you pose. I am afraid of what is happening to it because they won’t.

    He is risen, indeed.

  2. paige cunningham says:

    I enjoyed reading the post. I hope it generates discussion and not alienation. It seems things could easily get lost in translation considering this post is full of things us regular people can barely wrap our brains around… 🙂

    As a fellow counselor I too get a unique glimpse into the spiritual angst of people that (ironically) pastors often don’t (I do try to get my people to talk to your people but sadly they usually don’t– something about a really bad experience(s)…) I would say one of the main themes of my work (and I’m betting this is true of any therapist who’s willing to invite a client’s faith or spiritual part into the session) is the uncovering of the shame the client feels regarding their TRUE thoughts on God, faith, belief, etc (I often think of it as, the ‘big secret’). The feelings/beliefs they don’t think can be reconciled with being a Christian. If I’m honest it’s often my ‘big secret’ as well. But I try not to get that honest very often (it’s unnerving) Thankfully I don’t believe God requires this right thinking/feeling/believing of me to be one of Him. Phew.

    Wes never actually said what he told these “hundreds” of people… but fellow commenter and pastor,JC, immediately made a lot of assumptions of what Wes must have told them or didn’t tell them (or should have told them). I guess this was based on the perceived understanding of the post? I think this assumption actually highlights part of the problem for many people who feel they cannot be ‘honest’ with their pastor and fellow Christians.

    pc

  3. Mark Brady says:

    There probably is a loving God, but sometimes he seems busy, and the reps he sends to do his work often still have too much of their own to do.

  4. Provocative post. I am not sure I agree with Joshua’s response earlier, though, that the logical consequence of Wes’s syllogism is:

    “4. If Christians are “functional agnostics,” then in fact, God actually wants believers who, well, don’t know whether or not they… believe.”

    Technically, Wes’s syllogism didn’t introduce anything about God’s preferences, so I don’t see how you’re concluding this, Joshua. Wes writes in order:

    1. An agnostic is someone who is simply saying, “I don’t know” when it comes to the existence of God.

    This seems reasonable. It’s purely descriptive. Taken at face value, I think agnostics are claiming that they do not “know” in some sense whether God exists, where knowledge is usually a kind of Popperian/falsifiable proposition.

    2. Christianity is built upon a story that cannot possibly be “proven” to be true.

    I might quibble here. I don’t see why Wes introduces this premise. If you grant it, then I think #3 is a logical consequence, but I’m not sure I am willing to grant #2 just yet. Technically, Christian testimony was based on historical events that occurred. The main event I have in mind being the resurrection of Jesus. Paul, at least, appeals to the historicity of that event regularly in his writings, and in Acts when he argues before a political leader, seems to suggest that the historical event was widely accepted as fact. Now, is Wes’s point that we cannot “prove” historical facts? Why can’t we? I wasn’t alive when the Holocaust occurred, but we have a gigantic amount of evidence it occurred, so surely proof does not require a person actually being present to witness the event. The question therefore becomes: how are we to treat the holy writings and the oral tradition of the early church that claimed the resurrection was a historical event?

    What ultimately happens here is that an agnostic may argue that dead people cannot come back to life, and thus he rejects the premise. But why can’t dead people come back to life? Just because he has never witnessed that happening does not therefore mean they cannot come back to life. Usually, the agnostic is appealing to a particular physical law. But the nature of Christianity is that the author of those physical laws is free to violate them at his discretion.

    3. Therefore, Christians, by definition, must also be agnostics.

    That said, I am comfortable with a certain version of this proposition, though I think it’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that a truly agnostic human being, like Huxley, and a devout Christian like the apostle Paul really are qualitatively the same. But the difference is with regards to whether we tie all our beliefs to that which we can prove scientifically.

    But then, I would argue that agnostics hold many beliefs that they cannot prove scientifically. One being the Popperian assumption that falsification is a necessary condition for belief – that’s an axiom, not a deduction, and it itself is not falsifiable. So all of us have certain basic beliefs to a degree.

  5. Joshua – So what do you do with a person who has trouble believing with certainty? I think this gets back to the original post (and the series). What do you do with agnostics who cannot be sure?

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