On Faith

What do you know for sure?  What do you know with absolute certainty?  Do you think it is possible to reasonably believe that something is true without being absolutely certain that it is true?  Or are ‘reason’ and ‘belief’ essentially incompatible?

These days, reason and belief are often pitted as enemies.  They are presented as profoundly polar opposites.  Reason is thought to involve air-tight arguments and certain conclusions.  Faith involves silly superstitions and uncertain beliefs.    Reason is the solid and sure way for thinking people.  Faith, on the other hand, avoids all this far-too-strenuous thinking and offers made-up fantasies to dupe believing people instead.  In other words, reason is for the thinkers; faith is for the believers.  And characterized like this, they definitely seem to be opposed.

There’s something at the centre of the controversial relationship between reason and faith that doesn’t get much attention: knowledge.  To be more specific, what is the nature of the knowledge we accept?  What counts as reasonable knowledge?  It is (ironically) assumed by many that knowledge which gets the stamp of approval from reason is sure, whereas faith-based knowledge is sloppy superstition.  But is this a realistic characterization of the essence of ‘reason’ and the essence of ‘faith?’

Finding absolutely certain knowledge was an obsession for some of the most influential thinkers through history.  For instance, Descartes arrived at his famous conclusion, ‘I think; therefore I am,’ in his search for certain knowledge.  He came to think that an individual’s self-existence is the most certain truth a person can know.  And his axiom kick-started a widespread project of pursuing certain knowledge that attracted many prominent thinkers after him.  Since history is on our side, we can see that the inescapable end of such a philosophical project is essentially solipsism.  That is to say that there is a chasm between our internal and external worlds that cannot be bridged with certainty.  We are each so imprisoned in individual subjectivities that we cannot objectively know anything outside of ourselves.  And so, for those who choose to restrict their ‘knowledge’ to what is certain, only one’s self can be known.

Sure, these ideas can be taken to ridiculous extremes.  But our philosophical pursuit of certain knowledge has forced us to face the simple fact that a lot of what we accept as knowledge is uncertain.  Let’s all be honest: we take a risk whenever we claim to know anything that reaches beyond our own internal worlds.  We take a risk because we make a host of uncertain, yet unavoidable assumptions.  To get super basic, we usually assume that other people are real and the world around us is not an illusion, for instance.  We usually assume that our senses provide us with relatively reliable information about our external surroundings, too.  I think it’s very sensible to live according to assumptions like these, rather than, say, assume that other people are figments of my imagination or that the world I inhabit is a virtually simulated reality.  Even though most would agree that it is very sensible to accept the former assumptions, they remain assumptions, nonetheless.  And these assumptions that I’ve given as examples are just the tip of the iceberg.  What might actually surprise some is that if we follow the roots of our various bits of knowledge to their ends, much of our most cherished ideas about life, ethics, beauty, truth, religion, science, and more, rely on tacit assumptions that we accept a-rationally.

So what does this all mean?  I think one thing this means is we should each admit the simple truth that we all make assumptions more often and more readily; that assumptions are inescapable.  When subjected to rigorous scrutiny, the majority of what we accept as ‘knowledge’ is uncertain and laden with assumptions.  We need not consider this a bad thing, but we should be careful enough to at least consider the matter.  When placed under consideration, most knowledge is supported by assumptions that we put our faith in.  Most knowledge depends on belief and makes us vulnerable if we accept it.    Use words other than ‘faith’ or ‘belief’ if you prefer.  But if you use different language don’t ignore the basis of your knowledge, because ‘assumptions’ are really no different than ‘faith commitments.’

If we agree that having assumptions—or  faith commitments—is inescapable, then the question is not, ‘will I choose to exercise reason or faith?’, because, like it or not, reason and faith are inseparable.  It’s only possible for a person to create the appearance that they’re not inextricably joined by ignoring the assumptions that support the knowledge that they’ve embraced, which is carelessly negligent at best and stubbornly delusional at worst.  But if we admit that much of our knowledge relies on assumptions, then more realistic questions might be, what set of assumptions about life and reality do I think are most reasonable?  What set of assumptions seem to be most coherent and seem to correspond most with my experience and surroundings?  And once we’ve begun to ask questions like these, everything can really be boiled down to the question: what will I put my faith in?

What’s most significant is ‘reason’ and ‘faith’ are not irreconcilable enemies.  They are not profoundly polar opposites when we understand them within a more realistic and more honest scheme of knowledge.  In fact, when we examine the knowledge we accept, we should admit that reason and faith are inextricably joined since much of our knowledge relies on assumptions that we believe in.  And if you think you’re beyond belief—well, then you’ve got some more thinking to do.

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On Christian Life & Discipleship

I was chatting with a friend last night about church.  He told me that he’s been thinking about the ways that our churches have been negatively shaped by consumer culture.  I think my friend is on to something, too: many of our church gatherings are consumer-oriented and consumer-driven.  It is uncommon for church communities to be groups highly collaborative, committed contributors.  So why is this the case?

Broadly speaking, we should acknowledge that we have all been deeply influenced by our consumer culture.  I think the influence is so profound that none of us can truly appreciate the full impact that consumer assumptions have had on the ways we think and live.  In our time, many peoples’ most foundational basis of existence could be summed up as, ‘I consume; therefore I am.’

The spread of consumerism is ‘deep and wide,’ to use the words of an old Sunday school song.  So deep and wide that it’s fairly obvious how its assumptions and measures of success have shaped the purposes of many church communities.  It is incredibly easy, if not even encouraged, for the average church attender to be a casual consumer.  To show up and quietly slip in the back, unnoticed and unnamed.  To sit down and to consume the religious entertainment put on display—and perhaps even a coffee and a muffin too—all of which has been made available at multiple times and services for their convenience.  And if the religious goods and services create a high degree of satisfaction, then attenders will choose to consume Jesus, too.

Many church leaders are aware of how challenging it is to motivate people out of consumer habits.  From my experience, many leaders are also discouraged by these consumer trends and the challenges that come with them.  But attenders are not the only ones who are responsible for creating a church culture that’s consumer-driven. The average leader is responsible for creating it too.  Ironically, many leaders actually worsen their own struggle by unwittingly forming their gatherings and gauging their success according to consumer norms.  They foster the very habits that frustrate them.  Or, in other words, their designs sometimes encourage the consumer behaviour that is the source of their own discouragement.

So what needs to happen to change this consumer-church-culture?  What do we need to do to best form collaborative communities of committed contributors?  I don’t pose these as mere rhetorical questions.  If we are concerned that consumer habits have had a negative impact on our church communities, then we should honestly ask ourselves these questions.  And as we press in, we should ask even more questions.  This is an important first step because the problem will not change if we do not adequately identify it.

Personally, I’ve come to the point where I strongly suspect that tweaking and adjusting what’s current will not be enough.  I think many churches may need an entirely different paradigm.

On Christian Life & Discipleship

Change should be a normal part of the life of a Christian.  Not only that, Christians should expect and pursue change.  This isn’t always easy because change can be uncomfortable and even disorienting.  Central to the Christian life, though, is a commitment to become a new person.

To identify as a ‘Christian’ is to publicly confess your desire to change into a new person.  It is to admit that you are not the person you want to be, nor the person you are meant to be.  This is because in identifying as a ‘Christian’ you identify with Christ, the perfect person, and commit to learning his attitudes, behaviours, and character.

The nature of this change is illuminated in various ways throughout the Christian scriptures.  In one instance, Jesus paradoxically teaches that ‘whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for [his] sake will find it.’  Elsewhere, in a provocative conversation with an esteemed religious specialist, Jesus argues that true spiritual awareness is available only to those who have experienced an actual ‘rebirth.’  In one of his many letters, the apostle Paul writes that to identify with Jesus is to become a totally ‘new creation.’  Paul also describes the nature of this change as a death and resurrection in other instances.  He insists that when a Christian willingly identifies and deeply unifies themselves with Jesus through faith, they actually participate in the drama of his death and resurrection.

While these aphorisms, images, and claims suggest much, at the very least they suggest that the change is total, that it’s dramatic, and that it’s radical and restorative.  They highlight an obvious thrust of the Christian life that is often minimized, if not intentionally forgotten: change.

On Listening

Do you want to know how to communicate to someone that you respect and value them?  Give them your undivided attention and genuinely listen to what they have to say.  Do you want to know how to communicate to someone that you do not respect or value them?  Constantly interrupt and talk over them.

Though it requires no words, listening can speak volumes.