Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Questions are a Burden?

This is a response to this post from a great bloke I know.

"Why do you think you're the only one who is troubled by these questions?" The Nazi peer pressure approach. Funnily enough I don't remember Jesus ever using that one. There are different "right" responses to questioning depending on the questioner's motivation, but surely that isn't ever one of them. The implication is that because you're just one and everyone else is many then you must be wrong. Have you ever seen "Twelve Angry Men"? It takes a special kind of person to stand up against that kind of approach, and hooray for you.

I read Socrates at school - great bloke, and a great example for anyone who likes to ask questions. He said that "the unexamined life is not worth living"; I might not go quite that far, but the same definitely applies to faith. In my experience, people who ask questions and think tend to have a stronger foundation of their faith for when things go bad than people who just nod and say the right things. It should be fairly obvious that a faith that engages both the brain and the emotions is going to stand up better than one which bypasses one or both.

I think it's really important to think and ask questions. I guess that's the kind of person I am. I've certainly had suggestions in the past that maybe I should be more willing to accept certain things that I don't understand. That really rankles - usually it's things that my instinct shies away from and my reason can't defend. It's also been suggested that maybe I should spend less time talking about stuff and more time doing it. Maybe that's another wrong reaction to questioning like the one you describe, but not so severe; or maybe there's some truth in it. I've had to accept that I can learn from other people and don't have to argue everything from first principles (maths degree, can you tell?)

I've also realised that sometimes people like me better if I duck out of an argument. I sometimes wonder if by trying to curb my natural tendency to be argumentative I've gone too far the other way and I'm not being true to myself. Who knows. I still have some fairly non-mainstream opinions, at least relative to my current church and society at large, which must indicate some level of thinking about stuff for myself. Of course there would be those who say that simply because my opinions tend to be more on the fundamentalist side, that in itself shows that I don't think about my faith. They are of course wrong, and very arrogant with it, as the implication is that anyone who thinks hard enough will decide they're right. Richard Dawkins' delusion.

People question for different reasons - to understand and build themselves up, or to destroy and tear down. I've spoken to plenty of people who can't tell the difference - but Jesus could, and it's a very important difference. Jesus had to deal with a lot of destructive questions. Sometimes he gave a direct answer (e.g. Mark 12:18-27), sometimes not (Mark 11:27-33), but I think he always tried to address the underlying question. Not one for beating about the bush, was he? By contrast, in John 3:1-21 and John 4:1-26 he's being questioned by people who want to understand more.

Occasionally I've been thinking about a question and had to stop myself, because I realise that my imperfect understanding of the issue is leading me to choose between two wrong answers. Sometimes I have to accept that God is cleverer than I am; he knows the answer, therefore an answer exists. Faith, ultimately, is a decision to follow God; we make that decision despite not knowing, understanding, or even believing, completely. We have to accept God without knowing all the answers; but that's no excuse for not asking (or answering) the questions.
But as for believing seven impossible things before breakfast ... well, yes. I believe in lots of things that are scientifically impossible. I think that God defines the laws of nature - I don't think he's bound by them in any way. If he is, then Jesus is dead.

One day, I must write up my thoughts on creation, with reference to Newton, Hume, and the difference between Blade Runner and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
But not today - this is too long already.


Blogger Andy said...

Thanks Tom - that's a great response - and a great encouragement! Thank you.

I totally relate with going from one extreme (argumentative) to the other (too meek) and then getting annoyed that you aren't being true to yourself - particularly because my questions nearly always stem from a desire to be true to myself, and to have a faith that doesn't make me feel that I'm adopting a system of faith that I don't agree with.

I also appreciated your challenge about working out what lies behind a question - it's possible that my motives are not always pure (as much as I would love them to be!).

I think though that I struggle with the statement "I have to accept that God is cleverer than I am; he knows the answer, therefore an answer exists." mostly as I'm often grappling with questions of God's character and thus not whether there *is* an answer but rather whether I can find an answer that will mean I can maintain my faith in a loving God. It's hard to have blind faith in this situation, if there is a convincing argument that the opposite is true. Do you follow?

Also, as a throw-away comment that deserves a thread of it's own. I think there is a big difference between believing an 'impossible thing for breakfast' that is foundational to our faith (the resurrection, for example) - and believing an 'impossible thing' that is not a prerequisite for faith in Jesus. I would place the ol' Creation/Evolution debate in the latter, I think - but then, I'm sure this is because of my stance on a whole bunch of things!

3:31 AM  
Blogger tomdg said...

On the last para - I totally agree. To quote a former flatmate of mine, there's a huge difference between what is essential to be saved and what is merely desirable. What's worth arguing about probably lies somewhere in between ;)

On the penultimate para - I guess for me, God being a really good bloke is axiomatic, so I assume that any logic which seems to imply otherwise, however convincingly, must be false. If I'm feeling brave, I might try to work out where the flaw is, although if I can't, there comes a point where it becomes more important to walk away with my faith intact.

Is that a cop-out? There is a kind of logic to it. As a pure mathematician, I have to take something as axiomatic; I take as axiomatic that God is Good, rather than my own ability to do logic or my understanding of what "good" actually is.

To put a positive spin on it - maybe it's like starting from a position that "good is God" rather than the other way around - working out what is good from looking at God, rather than deciding for myself what is good and then sitting in judgement on God.

Only of course in reality it's not that simple. I read the book of Joshua, I look at Israel / Palestine today, and I say, what in God's Name is that all about? Sure, I can come up with an explanation that reconciles it all with what I believe about God - but it's far from obvious and therefore not particularly comfortable. But I assume that's my fault, not God's.

Does that make any sense?

4:56 AM  
Blogger Andy said...


Joshua has been troubling me for years, but especially recently - and even more so, as you mention, in the light of the Israel/Palestine situation.

The trouble is, if I accept God is good, but I don't allow myself to reconcile this passage with that then I run the risk (as many have done in the past) of assuming that since God is good and he commands genocide in Joshua (on the surface of things) therefore genocide is ok in certain situations. Or even if we don't go so far, I've certainly heard the Joshua narrative be used by Christians to justify war - rather horrifyingly with the statement "God is a warmongering God".

So I find I must find a way of interpretting this passage without accepting that God isn't good and fair. Or that God is good and fair, but that somehow something that I find is abhorrent is 'good and fair' too.

Not easy.


5:48 AM  
Blogger tomdg said...

Don't know if this helps at all, but I've come across at least one way in which God's concept of fair seems to be different from most people's.

"Fair" by God's standing seems to mean that each individual gets no worse than they deserve - but not that their reward can be compared with other people's.

One example of this is in Matthew 20:1-16. Another example is salvation. How is it fair that Moira Hindley (who I believe is now a Christian) can go to heaven while a "good person" who doesn't believe in Jesus doesn't? Part of the answer is that no-one is actually good enough in themselves to go to heaven.

As for Joshua, it seems to me that most things that applied in a physical way in the Old Testament apply in a spiritual way in the New Testament. (John 4:20-24?) War is an example of this. Another being that in the OT, God's people were a physical nation, whereas now, we're a spiritual nation, and explicitly not a physical nation (Gal 3:28-29).

There seem to be a lot of people in the US who read the OT and believe that they are the people of God called to behave in an OT way. I don't think they got this idea by accident, I think it was put there deliberately by right-wing elements infiltrating churches - but I digress. It certainly isn't Jesus way.

That would suggest strongly that genocide (and arguably any kind of war) is wrong now, in NT time. What about then? Who knows. Maybe Joshua never actually happened? Maybe it's just a parable, illustrating the importance of holiness and not compromising our faith, showing that God cannot co-exist with other "gods" in our hearts, showing (through Rahab at least) that God even then offered salvation to anyone who would accept him. Maybe not. I don't know.

6:12 AM  

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