Monday, January 26, 2009

The Facts of Life

First, let me thank Richard, my dear old friend, for inviting me to contribute to this discussion. I have him to thank for much of my religious training, since he introduced me to evangelical Christianity at the Woodlawn Baptist Church, about a thousand years ago. I still vividly remember the day I approached the front of this church and accepted Jesus Christ into my heart as my personal savior. My subsequent baptism also remains a very powerful memory.

Today, however, I remain a "Christian" only in the sense that I share much of his philosophy. One might as accurately describe me as "Hamiltonian." As an historical figure and philosopher Jesus has a lot to tell us--but I do not worship him.

I come to my understanding of the world through several different churches, twenty years of military service, two marriages, and a graduate social science degree. I daresay that few other contributors here will share my perspective. Moreover, I am skeptical about the exercise generally, since debates about the fundamental tenets of Christianity can all too quickly turn into questions of whether "He said it, I believe it, and that settles it" makes more sense than "you can't prove it." But my old friend asked.

So here is my answer: There is no God who is all knowing and all loving and everywhere. Jesus is not God, and was not sent to save mankind from itself. Jesus lived, and may have been crucified, but he did not rise from the dead. The Bible is not the inerrant word of God. And accepting Jesus' sacrifice will not bring eternal salvation, because there is no such thing.

Of course, as always, I could be wrong. Or Jim Norman could be wrong. Without question, one of us is. God either exists or He does not. Whether humans believe it, or can prove it, or just don't care--there either is or is not a God.

I am looking forward to exploring the questions Richard raises, and reading the thoughtful responses of others. Whatever the true state of affairs with regard to the actual existence of a single creator of the universe, the faith human beings have in whatever they find greater than themselves gives meaning to many lives, and certainly influences human existence in ways good and bad. We may not be able to answer the questions--but we should be thinking about them.


  1. Thank you for your clarity and for not hiding your beliefs in useless rhetoric.

    Does it not make sense to make sense of it? Anyone who argues I believe it, therefore it's true won't hang in the debate for long.

    It seems to me that if we've seen both good and bad made of the pursuit of God, it makes sense to bring real honesty to the debate and maybe discover what we all have in common. Wouldn't that be "spiritual"?

    If God created us, wouldn't God be in what we have in common? If there is no God, then don't we even more need to understand what life means, if only for our children's sakes.

  2. There are three specific things humans believe they have the power to do by their own thinking and ability:
    1.Humans think they can define truth.
    2.Humans think they can define God.
    3.Humans think they can define right and wrong.

    In our formative years we adopt the things we believe solely through our experience. As we grow and mature, reading and listening can also become a tool for acquiring new truth, but even as adults we have a hard time allowing our experiential truth to be rooted out or displaced by other means. Acquiring truth experientially is the most common way people get it.

    Experiential truth seems to be self-validating but it is a slippery slope. Acquiring truth solely by experience is the kind most likely to cause us to believe a lie because our experience is influenced by the previous garbage we have allowed to infest the entirety of what we believe.. Every lie we have believed corrupts our ability to process new experiences, without putting a spin on them that makes them compatible with the previous lies we have believed to be true. For example, if we develop a personal belief that there is no God, everything else we believe must not conflict with our “no God” idea.

    If the totality of our beliefs are built on foundational ideas that are not true, then our entire Body of Truth will be flawed. Every new thing we place in our Body of Truth must be consistent and compatible with every concept or idea that has preceded it. If the foundational ideas are lies, large chunks of our beliefs will become corrupt. This becomes problematic when we attempt to define God by our own thinking and reasoning.

    Defining God is the process of trying to understand the creation and all that is in it. Defining God is the process of finding ways to interpret the meaning of human life and the spiritual nature of humanity. Defining God involves discovering and understanding His nature, His identity, His character, and all that He is.

    Every process of human curiosity and discovery is somehow related to defining God. Science seeks natural explanations for the natural world. Psychology seeks to find the sources of human behavior and explain them in secular terms. Medical Science seeks to understand and treat the disease and discomfort that play havoc with our physical bodies. Astronomers peer into space to find origins and beginnings. Biologists and archeologists seek connections to man through ancient animals and prehistoric goo from millenniums past. Religion tries to explain and meld the natural world, the universe and the spiritual into cogent systems of belief and practice. At the root of all these things is one reality: God.

    Our belief or non-belief in God is the most foundational truth of our existence and every other truth or lie we accept must be consistent with what we either believe or do not believe about God. It is either the presence of God or the absence of God that becomes the foundational rudder of our existence in this world and the next. Eternity has been set in the hearts of men and we labor to understand what it means. The question is how do we come by the correct information?

    We are left with one truth about defining God. If God is to be defined, He must define himself! Human beings are incapable of doing by their own thinking. There is only one instance in history that claims to be that sort of revelation. That revelation appears in what we call the Bible.

    How can humans know anything about God, unless they get the information from God? Consider the following scenario: Before Europeans discovered the western hemisphere, the Americas were occupied by a native American people totally unaware of the existence of Europe. It is quite possible that some of these native Americans sat on the beach, gazing at the great expanse of ocean and wondering if there was land on the "other side", or if there was an "other side." However, until the Europeans arrived in ships, these native people could only speculate about what lay beyond the water. To know for certain what lay beyond, individuals from the "other side" would have to come to America and reveal the details about who or what occupies the “other side.” Failing such an event , the native Americans would have to find a way to go to Europe to get their questions answered.
    This same concept can be applied to knowing the truth about God. As a human being I am bound to a physical world of time and matter. I am "over here." God occupies a spiritual dimension that is eternal and outside of time. God and all true knowledge of Him is "over there." I cannot go "over there." There are no planes, trains or automobiles capable of making the trip. By my own thinking, I can only speculate about what might be "over there." To really know the truth, it would have to be revealed to me by something that lives, or has been "over there." Therefore, the truth about God and His creation can only be found by some kind of revelation from "over there" that reveals and defines God. In other words, God must define Himself! By definition, such a defining exercise would be a supernatural event or series of events. A supernatural event is something that happens in the natural world we would not naturally expect to happen.
    Of all the religions that mankind has embraced or created in the history of the world, there is only one historical Instance of supernatural revelation that claims to be an account of God actually breaking into the natural world for the purpose of revealing himself to the world. This revelation is found in the Bible and its zenith is in the appearance of the Jesus Christ.
    Without the Bible, we would have no factual basis for our knowledge of God. The Bible essentially reveals three things:
    1.The nature and character of God.
    2.That mankind is separated from God by sin and spiritual death
    3.That God has provided Himself through Christ as the means to restore humanity to life and fellowship with Him
    This is the Bible Revelation and it is established in human history. How then, can a man say with certainty tha Jesus was not God, or was not raised from the dead, simply because they choose not to believe it?

  3. It absolutely makes sense to make sense of it--or at least to try. The problem--which you touch on with your questions here--is that discussion of the existence of God implies a discussion of our very identities, how we come by them, and how deeply held they are. Humans have a need for a self-image, and much of that image comes from comparing ourselves to others.

    So we do not often seek commonality. Indeed, when "what we have in common" is pointed out to us, we often refuse to buy in. So, yes, we have God in common if he exists, but even believers have to qualify this by creating different traditions. It even affects the way we ask the question: not "Is God Real?" but "Is Christianity Real."

    Humans also need to find meaning in life, which you also touch on here. We tie much of this meaning into identity--as man, woman, father, mother, American, German, Christian, atheist. For many, it is what we hold most valuable--which makes facing challenges to our construction of that meaning and identity all the more difficult to face--for the believer and non-believer alike.

  4. This is not what I expected at all. I expected your response to "The Facts of Life" to be more closed and judgmental, so thank you.

    There's a lot in your post that compels response but I'm going to take my own advice and be brutally honest.

    I have abandonment issues tied to the actions of my father. My brothers have complained loud and long about him over all these years but not me. I accepted him by keeping my expectations low, or so I thought.

    I became a Christian and committed to ministry. I graduated college and enter seminary where I had bad experiences as a Youth Minister of a church. My reaction to these experiences was to sprint in the opposite direction of my own valid experiences for more than 25 years.

    What I would figure out later is a psychological truth -- I had projected my abandonment issues on God. When things go badly with God, I expect the worst, deny the wounded 4-yr-old that roams my head, and sprint for safety. My sanctuary is self-defeating, because it's denial.

    If there is a Creator, it would certainly not have these characteristics, i.e., he gets you to trust him and then chuckles at your folly and walks away, never to return. Let's use the Biblical metaphor of a lamb, except this Creator leads the lamb to slaughter.

    I must concede Jim this point -- we all bring our lens to the camera shoot. It does not follow, however, that we cannot come to know this and allow for it. It does seem, though, that Jim asserts well that we probably need assistance from outside ourselves. That assistance may be supernatural or may be natural, depending on what we really seek.

    I have had big, meaningful experiences as a result of interaction with good, honest ideas from people and I have had big, meaningful experiences that beg some other explanation. I refer to the latter as "spiritual" because they seem to happen in some other part of my being, which we could also call Europe or over there.

  5. Sorry, Stan, your comment came in out of sequence.

    So you explain why these discussions are difficult, but these discussions are not precluded.

    I thank all contributors so far for their thoughtful approach to the discussion.

    I just read the explanation of the Daniel prophecy. Based on the appearance of the web page, I thought I might be entering lala land but I was pleasantly surprised by the author's honest treatment of what he had and had not researched and what was and was not agreed upon.

  6. One of the tragedies of Christianity is that it has been appropriated and executed by human beings, the majority of whom I doubt are or were true believers. When human beings fail (because they are sinful machines of self-centeredness) to represent what they profess to believe they cause others to reject the God who has revealed himself so clearly and plainly.

    How to spot a real believer has always been a question men have sought to answer.
    Fortunately, Jesus himself gave us the proper formula for recognizing them. He said we
    would know them by their fruit. That fruit is identified in scripture as love, joy, peace,
    patience,. kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. As I see it, true
    believers who are indwelt by the spirit of Christ will be progressively moving toward
    these characteristics in their life and as they grow spiritually these are the characteristics
    they will display in the way they live and treat others.

    If these are the characteristics of true Christian people then it is fairly obvious that true
    Christians are in short supply in America today. Unfortunately, many people who do not
    believe form their opinions of Christ by observing the lives of those who profess to follow
    him. When they see the lunacy that is broadcast daily on TBN and proclaimed by
    countless other kooks it is difficult to understand what real Christianity is supposed to
    look like. That being said, the fact that human beings have corrupted something does in
    no way diminish the truth of the real thing. That is why revelation and the Bible are so
    important. Unfortunately, most professing Christians today are Biblical illiterates and
    know little about what’s really in the Bible.

    Real Christians who are producing the fruit that Jesus described are admittedly hard to
    find, but they are everywhere. It’s just that they are not on television and they are not
    calling attention to themselves. You find them at homeless shelters feeding people. You
    find them helping people recover from addictions. You find them reading to the elderly
    in nursing homes. You find them visiting the sick in hospitals and comforting people in
    prison. This is the location of the real church and what it looks like.

    I think all of us have had bad experiences with Religion. I’ve read your and Stan’s
    comments about being in the church and then falling away because it didn’t work for
    you. Well, I can share the same story. I walked the aisle of a little Baptist church when I
    was 12 years old and by the time I was 16 I was a mess. I went on to experience
    alcoholism, divorce and lots of other problems. Like you, I blamed God for all that
    misery and decided by faith had been misplaced. Our stories have been duplicated in the
    lives of many others, so we are not unique.

    Fortunately I eventually figured out that my problem was other people, not God. Once I
    was able to focus on Him and what he actually revealed about Himself, the fog slowly
    cleared and I could see Him clearly for the first time. And what I found was not what I
    saw in church or on TV.

    Fortunately, I was able to let go of the resentment I held toward the church as I
    perceived it long enough to let some real truth finally sink in.

  7. Thank you for your kind treatment. It shows that your experience comes from both sides of the debate like mine.

    I'm lucky enough to have been exposed to some of the Christians that you mention. My greatest lament now is that I am not one. I believe that I was at one time, but my psychological issues drove me away and I still struggle with them.

    I am spring-loaded to run and have a history of running from church, family and everything else you might imagine. If I can't run physically, I self-medicate to make sure I feel nothing at all.

    I have returned to church in the last few weeks and feel the "need for speed" in every action I observe, like a 4-yr-old who has been asked to trust again the person who has done him the most damage.

    As a result, I test and test and test God, people, and anything else that will listen, waiting for proof that they are safe before I approach.

  8. I agree with a lot of what Jim says above, but would challenge some things as well.

    We can for instance agree that humans generally develop their beliefs as they age, much of the foundation for these beliefs form early, and these beliefs include ideas about truth, God, right and wrong. I think, however, that what you are calling "experiential truth" depends on far broader influences than just "experience." At least, I would argue that this formulation characterizes socialization in much to passive a way. That is, we are not simply experiencing the world, but working daily to shape it and, more importantly, each other.

    To be sure, we work to shape concepts like God and truth, and on this we also agree. But again I would make a far broader claim: that humans believe they can define everything, not just God, Truth, right, and wrong. Further, I would say that they are correct--they have the power, collectively and individually, to construct the world however they wish. Whether or not God made them with this power, people can build the world they want,and they have. We may get it wrong, and it may cost us salvation, but the world is what we make of it.

    I do not, however, agree that humans focus all their curiosity and drive for discovery on defining God. I would argue instead the humans seek to explain the world around them. They want to know how it works and list its components. They want to detect the patterns that will allow them to correctly predict recurring factual events like the timing of the sunrise. Sometimes, for some, the answer to how and why questions is "God." For many others, and often, it is not, because they do not include God on the list of components. They may be wrong--but this mistake does not redirect their curiosity to God.

    I plan to explore these ideas more completely in a full post.

  9. Are you saying that humans erroneously think they can define everything, that we're prone to simplify?

    You say that we "construct" the world as we want. Do you see any room for unchanging absolutes that resist our efforts to change them, like my weight.

    I agree that the humans I know don't show signs of being on a never-ending God quest, maybe in spurts here and there.

    I also agree that not everyone includes God as a possible answer and wonder if you find Bruce's observations about being true to your own conscience a better way to describe the struggle for that group?

    This is a fresh idea and I thank you for your honesty. Most of us have grown up surrounded by Christianity and have participated in it at some level. It's hard not to be too familiar.

    What about those whose life experience and decisionmaking point them in another direction, so that God doesn't even come up as an option?

  10. This 'debate' is moving into a secular discussion of philosophy, which for me is a waste of time because they never end. I know some people enjoy these perpetual exercises but they leave me a flat.

    However, the point ofmy post about what people believe they have the power to do and about defining God was made within the concept that human beings are unique, spiritual creatures and whether they know it or not, all of their seeking has a spiritual basis to it. They may believe they are seeking answers in the name of science, but their real need and motivation has spiritual implications at the bottom of it.

    I really don't have the temperament to get into a hair-splitting discussion of minutia. I have done that in years past and they go nowhere. I certainly don't object to others doing it if they like that sort of thing. It's just not for me.

    I'm 66 years old now and have lived "lots of miles". I have satisfied all of the "great questions" that I had in earlier times of my life and have personal peace with everything. I realize that people who have rejected God and Christ will not agree with me. That's the way it works. The Bible actually explains the reality of this very clearly. "The gate is narrow and only a few find it."

    The problem with opinions is that everybody has one and they can't all be true. That's why we have to have revelation to arbitrate the truth of God and our relationship to Him. We can't define truth, or God by our own thinking. Even if I can make a compelling argument that convinces many, it does not mean it is the truth if it comes from my own thinking. I can't define a God I can't see or have never met. That's why He said he came to us.

  11. In one of Richard's posts he expressed a request for responses to Stanton's original post on "The Facts of Life". So, here is mine.

    Stanton, you said your were skeptical about having discussions about Christianity because they turn into "He said it, I believe it and that settles it" responses.

    I then respectfully notice in the next paragraph you make several rather sweeping statments as if they were absolute fact. Among them:

    1. There is no God who is all knowing and loving.
    2. Jesus is not God.
    3. Jesus was not sent to save mankind from itself.
    4. Jesus may have been crucified but did not rise from the dead.

    Stanton, is this an example of "Stanton said it and that settles it?" I have tried to give the reasons and logic for the things I beieve to be true, and it would be informative if you could tell us how you came to factually know the truth of what you have presented as truth. If I had made absolute statements exactly the opposite of those you made you would have teed off on me like Tiger Woods.

    So, I don't really understand what you mean by The Facts of Life. They sound more like your personal opinions to me.

  12. Thank you, Jim, many hold your view and I respect that you have come by it sincerely.

    I was listening to a series by a Harvard history professor on ancient Rome and was struck by a comment on the demise of the great power. According to the professor, it began when opposing sides polarized and ceased solving real problems that arose from their growing empire.

    If the theist, atheist and agnostic never agree, might there be value in what we value and how we came to it?

    You represent one Christian view well, but even Christians don't agree on major issues.

  13. When it comes to spirituality there are only two possibilities. One is the truth. The other is everything else. I'm just saying that true spiritual truth must be revealed because it's impossible to figure it out on our own. Most of the worlds religions are the result of men trying to figure it out as they create their own Gods. Christianity is uniquely different. It holds itself out to be the result of a revelation of God.

    It also makes little sense to a species who believes they are little gods and cabable of being a solution unto themselves. The basic tenants of Christianity fly in the face of human logic and that fact alone is strong evidence that men could not and would not have created it.

    I would also say that real Christians actually agree on the major points of the faith. There are only about 3 or four of them. And, if you find people who disagree about those they really aren't Christians. There are lots of folks wearing a Christian coat who are not Christians.

    The things that Christians disagree about are issues that are subject to interpretation and discussion. They don't disagree on the things that define the faith at its core.

  14. I would respond that human beings revealed Christianity. Logically speaking, the claim that the Bible is the revealed word of God is an assumption you make, not a known fact that you can use as evidence. I disagree that the tenets conflict with human logic, and believe that humans developed the basic tenets of Christianity--in fact human logic as constructed today depends on religious tenets of some sort. (We may of course not share a definition of "human logic" here).

    Further, religion is not the result of people trying to create their own gods--humans develop gods in the course of trying to explain the universe. Man seeks knowledge, and satisfaction of his curiosity. One thing humans want to know about is the nature of God, and human construction of God helps man form patterns--but Man reveals God to himself as part of a wider quest.

  15. You're introducing a number of new ideas. I'm not sure where you're going.

    When you say that "the tenets" don't conflict with human logic, do you mean the tenets I included in the first post?

    How does logic as constructed today depend on religious tenets of some sort?

    What is the wider quest?

    Be as specific as possible or we're going to descend into jargon. How about a couple of examples?

  16. Stan, with all respect I don't think you are really reading what I've said. At best you are not getting the the conclusions I've reached and why.

    I have never said that anything I've said is based on an assumption of anything. What I believe has been the result of what I believe is compelling evidence. I have tried to rationally communicate the reasoning behind why I believe what I believe.

    You, however, seem to be stuck on making flat statements as if they are facts and share nothing with us as to how you reached these conclusions.

    You are losing me Stan.

  17. Sorry if I'm not getting enough out there to make a case, but I am preparing longer posts to thresh out these ideas. Sadly, I have less time for this than others might, but I do want to participate.

    Yes, I mean the tenets Richard listed in the first post. I do not believe that they conflict with human logic (which I would instead call shared understandings) and that in fact religious foundations--tenets--depend on human logic. Your mileage may vary.

    I am referring to the wider quest for knowledge about the nature of the world, since I don't think humans confine their search for information to ideas about the nature of God, as Jim wrote.

    I characterize your claim that the Bible is the revealed word of God--which you stated more explicitly in a post in another thread--as an assumption because nothing establishes this as a natural fact.

    Again, I apologize if I have not made the basis for my conclusions clear. I do plan to do so, but frankly this exercise has forced me to clarify my own mind a bit more than it was, and I am still working on this.

    Generally speaking, I plan to argue that human beings, as part of their effort to explain the universe, constructed a social reality that reflected their conclusions about the physical world, their place in it, and their relationships with each other. This reality includes a shared understanding of God and religion.

    This does not mean that God does not exist, nor that the fundamental tenets of Christianity are wrong. I happen to think they do not describe the actual physical universe, but they may actually simply reflect the closest humans have so far come to explaining the world. People may be more right about this than I believe, but I plan to offer an alternative explanation, while responding to the arguments made by others (e.g., the discussion of the resurrection).

  18. I want to make sure you are heard clearly, so define "natural fact" regarding the Bible. Do you mean that no one has first-hand knowledge of the assertion?

    I'm glad you clarified; I got the feeling that you were warming up to something you were going to say rather than saying it.

  19. To give you my definition of "natural fact" I have to first make clear that I do not accept the existence of anything "supernatural." This is a definitional question--it does not necessarily mean I do not believe that some of the specific phenomena that some people would regard as supernatural, such as God, ghosts, ESP, are not real. I think that whichever of these things exist are part of nature--they are part of the systemic arrangement of matter and energy that makes up the universe, and no less natural than you and I.

    Indeed, part of my argument against the existence of God is that if He is part of the systemic arrangement, he could not have created that arrangement.

    At any rate, if God or any of these other things exist, they make up part of the natural world, and they must fit that order. They cannot suspend the laws of physics, for example--though they may fit parts of the natural law we don't yet fully understand.

    That is to say that God's existence or nonexistence is a natural fact--it is part of the systemic arrangement we occupy, like the speed of light or our physical presence. That God revealed his Word in the Bible is not a natural fact in this way--at least not one we've verified empirically. Its origin is a subject of speculation and assumption, not of natural order

  20. Be careful with your terms if you want us to truly understand. I don't understand your use of the adjective, it seems like you might have just said "fact". I thought maybe you were saying something more about that fact.

    You sound like a panentheist here.

    I think Jim's going to object again that he's providing empirical evidence. For example, his argument about the validity of the copying of the text can be verified by expert sources outside of Christianity. He then goes on to posit what that might mean to us.

    If the text is reliable and can be established as predating the time of Christ, then you have some evidence, if not overwhelming, that SOMETHING out of the ordinary was happening, at least an amazing statistical anomaly, one of Biblical proportions!

    Isn't that at least as much evidence as you might get if someone you trusted told you they had seen a ghost? Wouldn't you want to know more and at least find it "eery".

    I will now argue Jim's point about ghosts. John Wesley, a major player in the reformation and the father of the Methodist church believed that the home he grew up in had a ghost under one of the beds. His entire family, including the adults, believed this and both his brother Charles (the hymn writer) and he still claimed this belief as adults.

    We have written documents by John as an adult recording this fact. There were multiple witnesses to these events, ghosts, etc. of varying ages. The fact was compelling enough that it stayed with John and Charles as adults. Since they were celebrities in their time, their documentation of the ghost was preserved and maintained to the present day.

    Would you entertain the idea that this ghost is real? Would you consider documented evidence from eyewitnesses who held this to be true over time empirical evidence? I think most would -- I think this is Jim's argument.

    Reality test for me: I never forgot this story and I consider it evidence that I should entertain the existence of ghosts, using the common definition of ghosts.

  21. Great analogy Richard. And, in the case of the resurrection of Jesus you have personal testimony that they saw him, touched him and ate with him after he was raised. When it's impossible to figure out a rational motive for any of them to have been lying about it...there testimony moves toward being credible and being the truth.

  22. I noticed that Jesus presented the same evidence to his disciples like he understood that sometimes there are real barriers to understanding.

  23. Stan is making some philosophical jumps that I'm not getting. As I illustrated (or attempted to illustrate), the idea that God exists as part of the "system" and also created it is easy for me to fathom as is seeing God outside of temporal restrictions.

    If I land on the moon, begin to walk about and discover another craft, I get the big idea, i.e., someone else has been there and that intelligent design was involved. I don't need to know who was involved or what engineering, and yet I know for a fact that someone has been there by the effect of their past presence and I can extrapolate intelligence.

    I readily ponder the meaning of an all-everything prime mover, it's fascinating, but, for me, I reason back from effect (the unexpected vehicle) to the designer. I feel no need to be able to explain everything about the nature of God, I prefer that it's a stretch.