Friday, September 2, 2016

Shadow of Doubt


I’m a natural born skeptic. Those who know me can confirm that cynicism runs through my veins. “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” and all that. It’s to God’s credit, however, that he can effectively transform a very selfish person into a servant of others, a violent person into a gentle soul, a greedy materialist into a philanthropist, or even a confirmed skeptic into a believer. After all, it’s in our weaknesses that his power is made perfect. And so we become his trophies, monuments to his ability to overcome any barrier that the human heart can erect. As a believer, I still regularly wrestle with doubt, and it’s this internal and near constant struggle that has largely come to define me.

C.S. Lewis describes faith as “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods” (Mere Christianity). I’ve noticed that my doubt is often tied to my emotional state. This was hard for me to accept at first because I consider myself a very rational person. It’s humbling—yet extremely helpful—to know that my critical faculties can be so easily influenced by my fleeting brain chemistry. I’m frailer than I first imagined.

It seems that belief to a certain extent is a matter of choice. Hear me out, as I’m not suggesting that one could choose to believe against one’s better judgement that, for example, the moon is in fact made of cheese or that the tooth fairy is actually open for business and ready to trade with the children of the world. Regardless of the incentives, I simply cannot believe these things. However, we regularly make choices about how we will process/file/believe the numerous evidences that our world offers. Confirmation bias—the human tendency to seek out evidences for that which we already believe to be true—is present in atheists, believers, and everyone in between. Otherwise reasonable people will regularly choose to believe any number of outlandish things regarding vaccines, conspiracy theories, political candidates, etc. despite the ample existence of compelling contrary data. The resulting cognitive dissonance is more obvious in some than others, but I would put forth that none of us is completely immune to this human phenomena.

I’m not suggesting that truth is relative, only that our ability to arrive at truth is very much related to our subjective perceptions and emotions. We must be aware of the intellectual pitfalls common to the human experience if we’re to steer clear of them in our journey toward truth. It’s ultimately an unwavering love of truth that allows one to reject fiction, regardless of how emotionally entrenched it may be.

The broad strokes of the biblical narrative are widely known within Western culture: An all-powerful, timeless, and good being makes humanity in his image and places them in a beautiful and vast universe as his administrators. Humanity quickly rebels and condemns the universe to death and decay. The merciful creator then interacts with fallen humanity through human messengers to reveal his heart for reconciliation and to promise a rescuer. At long last, the creator miraculously comes as a human to bring the good news of God reclaiming his rebel world. He accomplishes this by living a perfect life, dying an excruciating death at the hands of his creation, and rising from death victorious. This divine human claims to have power over life and death and offers pardons and adoption to all rebels who acknowledge him as king. Before ascending to another dimension, he instructs his followers to go tell the rest of the world about the good news of his kingdom. He promises to one day return, eradicate evil, raise the dead, and punish his enemies. Along the way there’s water turned to wine, pillars of fire, invisible supernatural beings for and against the creator, a guy who gets swallowed by a giant fish and lives to tell about it, and a one-time talking donkey.

I don’t think we should pretend that the story isn’t odd, that it isn’t at first hard to believe. An extraordinary claim of this scope and magnitude must reasonably come with proportionately compelling evidence that it’s true if anyone is expected to believe it. Oddly enough, though, it’s the strangeness of the story at times that causes it to smack of authenticity (strangeness alone, of course, couldn’t be the sole criterion for determining the truth of something). The human authors of Scripture don’t seem to be overly concerned with the strangeness of their testimony. They often recount things that would’ve been more easily accepted had they omitted certain details or slightly altered things to be more palatable to the hearer (such as their ancestors' and their own personal failings, less than ideal witnesses of key events, etc.). The fact that they didn’t, however, is one small marker for me on the road to accepting their credibility. I believe Lewis in Mere Christianity discusses how we could easily in a short time manufacture from our own minds a simple religion which could quickly be understood if that’s what we set out to do. Real things, however, aren’t always how we would’ve first thought them to be and often have a complexity, a strangeness even, that naturally requires time and effort to comprehend.

Ancient mythology, animistic religions, and such have their obvious earthly antecedents. The Greek pantheon, for example, is clearly made up of humans like us, what we think we might want to be, only magnified times ten, ultimately more passionate, petty, and insecure than any single human and with greater propensity and capacity to pursue the basest of human desires for an indefinite period of time. The God of the Bible, on the other hand, isn’t what we could’ve imagined. He is clearly not what we would have imagined. His counterintuitive thinking seems to even confound his prophets, who sometimes must reluctantly convey his strange messages only at his emphatic insistence. His revealed triune nature alone is enough to make your head spin, but it points to a truth about an allegedly transcendent being that is both confounding and confirming. I’ve heard it rightly said that the deity described in Islam, for example, couldn’t be accurately called “loving” apart from the existence of something or someone else. There must logically be an object of affection, something besides the lover, for love to exist. The most that could be said for Allah (along with numerous other deities) then, before he allegedly created the universe, is that he had the potential to be loving. His very nature is philosophically contingent on his creation (the Greeks were at least more up front about this facet of their gods’ reliance on humanity). Do not misunderstand my noting of this ontological difference as a petty expression of “my deity can beat up your deity.” I don’t think in those terms. My aim is always to follow truth wherever it leads. It’s the God of the Bible, who uniquely is said to exist as a harmonious community—Father, Son, and Spirit—unto himself, who alone could truly be complete and loving without the necessary existence of anything beside himself. He’s not merely us magnified (after all, we’re said to be made in his image and not the other way around); His divine personhood is logically more sophisticated than our own. That an infinite being, who is more of a person than you or I, possessing hyper-personhood, would exist in this complexity is both impossible to have figured and yet obvious once it is revealed to us. The way he wields infinite power is also like nothing a human could have thought up. His clever and startling solution for reclaiming and restoring his rebel world is at the same time elegant and horrific, the product of a moral genius who has yet to encounter a truly no-win scenario and who fully demonstrates the necessary fortitude required to bleed out his costly and innovative rescue plan.

If we’re entertaining the idea of a transcendent being that’s capable of architecting the universe from nothing, then we immediately realize that he will have to initiate any potential interaction between us if it’s to occur. This is where divine revelation comes in (most frequently delivered to/through human messengers). Truth be told, I thoroughly dislike the method this infinite being primarily chooses to communicate with his finite creation. No doubt, he has his reasons. Still I would much rather have my own earth-shattering vision of God seated on his throne then have to experience it vicariously through the prophet Isaiah’s alleged encounter. And I’d have preferred to see Jesus, with my own eyes, raise Lazarus from the grave then have to merely read the testimony of those who did. Thomas’ famous need to confirm an outrageous claim with his own senses really resonates with me. I’m not saying that God refuses to speak to most of us directly. I’ve had some personal and what I think are remarkable encounters with him. But I cannot through these personal encounters know what the first humans were like when the world was young, surmise what went wrong, and piece together what he’s even now doing to correct things. Like it or not, I must look to the authors of Scripture, who were said to be “carried along by the Holy Spirit,” for the larger narrative (2 Peter 1:21, 2 Timothy 3:16). As it turns out, God did not think it necessary to consult me on how I would like to be contacted. And it does no good to go on endlessly about how we wish things were. We must instead consider things as they are. I think it would be truly unfortunate if someone refused to examine an important message simply because they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, accept the way in which it was delivered (especially since God is said to intentionally use seemingly “foolish” and “lowly” things to accomplish his objectives – 1 Corinthians 1:27-29).

The Biblical story of a Syrian commander named Naaman comes to mind (2 Kings 5). His initial snobbery toward divine revelation almost cost him a miraculous healing, not to mention a life-changing encounter with a living God. Naaman had heard about the powerful God of Israel and had sought out his prophet Elisha with the hopes of being healed of his untreatable and degenerative, flesh-eating disease. While Naaman was still on the way, Elisha sent his servant to instruct the commander to bathe seven times in the, apparently unappealing, Jordan River. Naaman was indignant. He was expecting Elisha to “stand before him” (instead he would receive the revelation from the messenger of the messenger—twice removed from the divine source), “call on the name of the LORD,” and “wave his hand” (God was not offering anything so flashy). Furthermore, the proud commander could think of several “superior” bodies of water back home from which his rescue could just as easily come. It was Naaman’s own servant who finally exposed his master’s prejudice and convinced him to not discount the revelation of God simply because it was not the message or method he was anticipating. Had Naaman not considered and acted on the revelation given to him by God through the prophet Elisha, had he left in search of a “better” revelation, one more palatable to his preconceptions, he would’ve eventually succumbed to his flesh-eating illness. Had Naaman thought that washing in a river would be a good idea, only a different river other than the humble Jordan, then he would have died just the same (the river of course had no intrinsic healing properties, but, by the will of God, it became a conduit of his grace). Had he consented to wash but insisted that he would only wash six and not seven times as God had clearly instructed, his terminal disease would have continued its work. Naaman’s rescue was contingent on his willingness to accept divine revelation on the Revealer’s terms. I have come to realize, though I may have in my mind what I think would be a better way for God to have revealed himself to humanity, or to me in particular, this is not itself a good enough reason to outright reject the method he has allegedly employed (humble as the method may be).

There are numerous internal and external indicators that point to the human authors of Scripture being credible eyewitnesses. The existence of many of the places, people, and events, for example, can be confirmed by ancient historians and modern archeology (with additional corroborating data unearthed all the time). The multiple instances of fulfilled prophecy point to an unearthly vantage point that can’t easily be ignored. However, my skepticism compels me to take seriously every reasonable case against the supposed witnesses (accusations that the story was compiled/constructed generations after the events mentioned by unknown authors with unknown agendas, innocent corruption of core parts of the story due to early oral transmission, and so on). Even prominent critics of the Bible acknowledge the authenticity of many of Paul’s 1st Century letters (several external historical documents make this case). In Paul’s 1st letter to the infant church in Corinth, which was written in the mid-50s AD (Paul was executed by Nero sometime before the emperor’s suicide in 68 AD), he perfectly and succinctly recounted the gospel story’s key events, referring to these events as being of “first importance.” Likewise, Luke the physician wrote his gospel and sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, based on eyewitness testimony and almost certainly before Paul’s death (Acts, which heavily features the life of Paul, concludes with Paul’s eventual fate yet to be determined). John, knowing the extraordinary nature of his testimony, emphatically reassured his readers that he had “heard,” “seen,” and “touched” this “Word of Life” that has now consumed him. One might question whether the author of John’s gospel actually saw water turned to wine or shared a meal with a once-crucified Galilean, but one can be reasonably certain that the author had firsthand knowledge of an early 1st Century Jerusalem (significant due to the city’s decimation shortly after in 70 AD during the Jewish-Roman Wars), including the layout of the city, and specific structures like the now-excavated pool of Bethesda (described in John chapter 5), as well as local politics and personalities. Several other examples exist, but this post isn’t meant to be a comprehensive argument for the reliability of Scripture. I can choose to disbelieve their testimony, but I must admit that their odd story seems to have remained consistent since the beginning, even in the face of torture and death.

Few things that we now know were established by way of our firsthand experience. I have never been to Australia or the moon, for example, but I have no trouble believing that they are real places. The facts surrounding Australia, the moon, and millions of other things, have been firmly settled in my mind on the basis of credible authority. Our task then is to determine what sources of information are credible, reliable, and trustworthy. If we will not receive truth on the basis of credible authority, then we must resign ourselves to never knowing very much about anything. This necessary expression of faith is an unavoidable and unpleasant reality for a skeptic like me. But it is said that God's own Spirit is ready and willing to help any of us—those who are humble enough to ask—sort all of this out.

I hope the reader doesn't conclude that one can from the safety of their armchair simply analyze their way into communion with God. At some point we must conclude our reasonable deliberation and actually decide whether or not we will get into the water. Jesus tells a story about two sons who are asked to work in their father's vineyard (Matthew 21). The first son initially refuses, but then later reconsiders and eventually obeys his father's instruction. While the second son quickly and emphatically agrees he will go, but then never makes it. The sort of belief that God is after is not the talking kind. I think he takes great pleasure in the one who, despite uncertainty, finds themselves waist deep in the Jordan, half way through their seventh consecutive bath. After all, he invites us to “taste and see” for ourselves (Psalm 34:8).

I’ll admit to not having everything resolved to my complete satisfaction (or even anywhere close). This is a post about doubt, after all. My unrelenting skepticism ultimately compels me to keep searching for answers. There are several passages in Scripture that I’ve wrestled with for years, some that I’ll probably never fully understand. But I can attest that God has shown himself to be true and trustworthy in certain significant instances, so much so that I sometimes find myself extending great leeway to him in other areas that confuse or concern me. This is, I think, the essence of faith.

The Word of God became flesh and lived among us.

A somewhat nondescript, homeless, Middle Eastern man from 1st Century Nazareth is said to be God’s greatest revelation to humanity, the clearest picture of who he is and what he’s up to. Attempt, if you can, to temporarily bypass the cultural familiarity and preconceptions you have regarding this now well-known character (complete with his pale skin, flowing hair, and red sash). That this man, of all people, is the “Son of God” is nothing short of scandalous, and we should not so quickly overlook the oddness of his bizarre claim. If one was ever going to be put off by the humble packaging of a divine revelation, this would probably be the time. But ordinary as he may seem, this divine man resembles the first humans in his untarnished perfection while at the same time pointing forward to a restored humanity, and a seamless reunification of heaven and earth, which he is ushering in. The story of God can only be understood in its entirety when viewed through the lens of this person Jesus. He is a better Adam, a better Israel, a better temple, a better high priest, and a better sacrifice—truly “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End(Revelation 22:13).

What would the perfect human being, God’s image bearer as he intended, be like? Said another way: What would happen if the Creator gave us a living breathing commentary on humanity (addressing both what we are and what we could be) and simultaneous revelation of himself by becoming one of his creatures and walking among us? I find the Bible’s answer to this intriguing question extremely compelling. There are a few things we could guess without knowing anymore of the story. If humanity is as broken, as out of step with God, as the previous prophets let on, then we’d expect that God’s commentary on humanity would not be entirely welcomed by his wayward creatures (to say the least). In fact, this perfect human would be so out of step with everyone else that he’d almost certainly be met with unequaled hostility. His very presence would threaten to expose cherished fantasies as the fiction that they are. Those who thought humanity was mostly fine, that they themselves were mostly fine, would undoubtedly be his greatest adversaries. While those who miraculously agreed with this perfect human’s estimation of things would be drawn to the revealed God who compassionately and humbly came to help.

The extraordinary evidence we have been waiting for, that we reasonably need to corroborate the spectacular story of God, comes chiefly with the physical resurrection of Jesus. A man who publicly predicted his own death and subsequent resurrection, was subjected to arguably the most excruciating and humiliatingly public death imaginable, and ultimately was seen publicly by hundreds after he stepped out of his borrowed grave. These remarkable events did not take place “in a corner” (Acts 26:26); they were a matter of public record and became common knowledge (rippling out from Jerusalem and quickly buzzing in every province of the known world). The amazed witnesses went forth in the power of God’s Spirit and “turned the world upside down” with their simple testimony (Acts 17:6). They freely gave their possessions to those in need, cared for the poor and marginalized, and willingly surrendered their bodies to be brutalized and destroyed, singing as their murderers sadistically tried in vain to extinguish their light. Hundreds quickly became thousands and then millions. As a skeptic, I of course realize that rapid growth and a willingness to be martyred do not alone prove the validity of the story. However, these powerful indicators, taken along with numerous other sign posts (some of which were mentioned), are difficult to ignore. In light of this compelling information, I would agree with Paul that our otherwise bizarre behavior as Christ-followers is more than “reasonable” given the extraordinary circumstances (Acts 26:26).

Most days I believe the whole story. Some days I am overcome by the oddness of it all, and I can hardly believe any of it (even questioning my own unexplainable encounters with him). I have experienced both the crushing weight of doubt and the ecstasy of having that unbearable weight miraculously lifted off my shoulders by a patient Savior who never stops rescuing me. I often repeat the plea of a desperate father who famously cried out to Jesus, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24b). I feel a kinship with John the Baptist, who was appointed to be the Messiah’s herald even though he would later express uncertainty about Jesus’ identity. I also appreciate that Matthew records how even among the eleven, and on their way to hear their resurrected Lord deliver the Great Commission no less, “some doubted” (Matthew 28:17). In my most lucid moments, I recognize that he is more real than I am—that he is more alive than I am—and I even sometimes chuckle at the absurdity of someone who has only existed for 35 years questioning the existence of someone who has always been. He is the dreamer, and we are merely his dream. He is the source of life—He is LIFE: “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
So count me among the “fools” who will bathe in the muddy Jordan, give up our lives in order to truly live, pursue an invisible kingdom, and hope in a 1st Century homeless guy who claimed to be “the resurrection and the life.”

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