The Foundation, part 4: The Lynchpin of Existence

To boil everything I’ve written in this blog down to a single statement: the Church’s use of the term “faith” is completely wrong, and that error has corrupted every facet of Christianity as we know it. Or, to be accurate… we adapted the term to accommodate a pre-existing corruption, and now we use it to justify and reinforce that corruption. In either case… chicken or egg, all of our problems are wrapped up in our erroneous use of the word “faith.”

I suppose I should qualify that remark, though, by stating the obvious fact that words are not numbers: they aren’t fixed quantities with immutable, universal meaning in any and all settings, retaining the same, precise value in any equation in which they’re inserted. Unlike numbers, their meaning depends entirely upon usage and intent and interpretation. Any given word means whatever the user thinks it means and has a reasonable expectation of what his audience will interpret it to mean.

So in that regard, our collective use of the term “faith” is correct insofar as we all generally know what each other means when we use that word. But, our use of it is a complete reversal of the meaning we actually find for it in the New Testament.

Actually, to be accurate (and to state the obvious again), the word “faith” is an English word, so it doesn’t actually show up in the New Testament. It is, however, a frequent translation of the ubiquitous Greek word pistis. The word is also sometimes translated “belief,” “assurance,” “pledge,” and even “proof,” depending on usage and context.

As I discussed at length in The Foundation part 1, we typically interpret the word to mean mere belief alone, and apply that meaning across the board to questions of salvation and practical application and epistemology.

I’ve already discussed at length how our interpretation of “faith” and the biblical writers’ use of it differ with regard to practical application and to salvation (or “soteriology” if we want to be all high-falutin’ and technical), but I’ve only barely touched upon our epistemological misuse of it.

So, here goes the full treatment.

If you’ll forgive me rehashing a bit (assuming you’ve read my earlier posts…), we generally speak of “faith” as the basis for our acceptance of Christianity. In other words, if we’re asked why we hold Christianity to be true, a common answer might be “Because it’s what I’ve put my faith in.” We believe because we have faith.

That particular use of the term “faith” is known more formally as fideism, and it happens to be a complete reversal of the use of pistis in the New Testament.

“For God has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the Man He has appointed. He has given proof (translated from pistis) of this to all men by raising Him from the dead,” said Paul to the Athenians at Mars’ Hill.

“Therefore, let all Israel know for certain that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah,” said the apostle Peter to conclude his first public address about the resurrection. That, he argued, was God’s vindication of Jesus after the people of Israel had rejected and condemned Him, and on the basis of that vindication, Peter argued for them to “know for certain” that Jesus was the Messiah.

He evidently got his point across, because the account reads that they were “cut to the heart” and asked the apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” In other words, they did “know for certain” that God had made Jesus both Lord and Messiah, and now they wanted to know what to do about it.

Peter then instructed them to “repent and be baptized” in order to be forgiven their sins and to receive the Spirit of God.

The word pistis doesn’t show up in this passage, but repentance and baptism are acts of faith, and we read elsewhere that we receive forgiveness and salvation by faith. So, Peter’s audience believed that Jesus was the Messiah at that point—they knew for certain, no less, but they had not yet responded in faith for salvation.

Peter later wrote to his followers, “Through Christ you believe in God, who raised Him from the dead, and so your faith and hope are in God.”

What all that boils down to is that we do not believe in the resurrection because we have faith. On those terms, “faith” is something we would bring to the equation, and we would believe, essentially—not because of any truth we’ve discovered about God, but because we want to for whatever the reason (usually cultural conditioning nowadays). And on those terms, God is not the Source and Arbiter of truth—we are, because we supply Christianity’s validity by bringing our faith to it.

The New Testament writers taught the precise opposite of that: we’re not supposed to believe in the resurrection because we have faith; we’re supposed to have faith because we believe in the resurrection.

Paul told the Athenians that the resurrection is itself the proof of the fact that God will one day judge the world by the teachings, standards, and person of Jesus Christ.

Peter pointed to the resurrection as God’s revelation of Himself and His affirmation of Jesus as the Messiah. He said that it is through the historical person of Christ and because of the fact of His resurrection that we believe and hope in God.

If I can get away with geeking-out again, since this is just too good an illustration not to use…  it’s like the ending of The Matrix (the first one) when Neo was in the phone booth, declaring war on the machines: “I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world… without you: a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world… where anything is possible…” Then he stepped out onto a crowded sidewalk and shattered everybody’s understanding of the world they lived in by launching himself into the sky and flying over the city.  Neo lived in a world beyond the Matrix—a world more substantial and  real than the artificial existence they knew and accepted as “real,” and he gave them a glimpse into that world by tearing back the veil of their own world and showing them something that couldn’t possibly be accounted for within its accepted limitations.

This speaks to a frequent challenge by atheists, which is the question “If God is real, then why hasn’t He ever shown up in Person and announced Himself to the world? Why is ‘faith’ even necessary to believe in Him?”

Well, that’s precisely what the gospel claims to announce: the good news of God having done just that. That’s what the resurrection is, according to the New Testament—it’s God showing up and announcing Himself to the entire world, so that blind faith isn’t part of the equation. Just like when Neo took off flying from a crowded public street corner so people would “see what the machines didn’t want them to see,” through Jesus Christ, God has torn back the veil and shown the world the greater reality beyond what we see by doing something in human experience which isn’t possible to account for within any other paradigm than His.

That’s the message of Christianity, at least. Those are the terms on which it offers itself—those are the terms the apostles and their immediate followers taught and wrote down.

So if it’s true—if the resurrection really happened, it’s the source of faith, not the object of faith.

If it really happened, then we don’t believe in Jesus Christ because we believe the Bible. Instead, we believe the Bible because we believe in Jesus Christ. And if we believe in Jesus Christ, it’s because evidence and reason point to the resurrection as a verifiable historical fact.

We don’t “believe the Bible because the Bible tells me so.” It doesn’t offer itself on those terms. If we believe the Bible is more than a merely human product like any other collection of ancient writings, it should be because reason dictates that the evidence establishes it as such: it should be a rationally justifiable conclusion, not a starting premise.

In other words, we don’t believe in Christianity because we want to. When people believe things simply because they want to believe them, their belief system is their starting premise, and then they misuse their powers of reason to cherry-pick the evidence to support their belief, and they eventually get into the habit of only exposing themselves to evidence that supports that premise and excluding any people or information that call it into question. And, typically, we don’t even realize we do this, and so we honestly see evidence everywhere to reinforce what we “know” to be true.

Starting Premise (belief) + Logic and Reason (induction, rationalization) = Conclusion (carefully selected facts, evidence and data)

Believing on those terms leads to insularity, because we have to be careful to only expose ourselves to people who think like us and to information that reinforces our starting premise.

Willful, deliberate ignorance becomes a way of life—regarded as a virtue, even—and leads to bigotry and tribalism, which in turn lead to oppression of dissenters and outsiders. This, of course, leaves us powerless to obey Christ’s command to spread His message to the rest of the world, because then we’re in the business of shutting out the world, not engaging it. Because that kind of belief is dishonest at its foundation, it leads to all of the character defects and sinful behaviors the Bible teaches us to surpass.

Believing on those terms is a phony faith, because it’s really, ultimately, a rejection of God. Instead of trusting Him, it really says, “I don’t believe God has revealed Himself in any way that could stand up to scrutiny, so I’m going to stack the deck and rig the game so that Christianity wins out.” It masquerades as piety, but it’s really about preserving our own culture and social investment, which turns tradition and cultural security into gods in their own right.

Instead—and according to the standards of the Bible itself (and of just plain old intellectual honesty), we should believe it because it’s true. That is, if it really is true.

The process by which a belief of this kind is obtained is by beginning with the facts at hand—which are potentially available to anyone and everyone because they’re part of the same reality in which we all exist, and then by way of logic and deductive reasoning, arriving at a conclusion, and that conclusion comprises our belief system in whole or in part. So, to summarize, the process goes:

Starting Information (evidence, facts, data, etc.) + Logic and Reason (deduction, hypothesizing, experimentation, etc.) = Conclusion (belief system).

Those are the terms on which Christianity offers itself. It claims to provide evidence that points to the conclusion that God has revealed Himself and His plan for humanity, and it stands or falls on that evidence.

And if it can’t meet those terms, according to the apostle Paul, Christianity is a farce with nothing worthwhile to say, and a tragic waste of life and resources and well-being. “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith,” he wrote, adding that Christians are the most pitiable people on the planet… if Christ wasn’t raised.

So those are the terms. Without the resurrection as a knowable and verifiable fact, Christianity implodes. It collapses in on itself, because it can’t really be the spiritual and moral light of the world and the genuine expression of God’s revealed truth without a rational basis for belief, and the resurrection is the lynchpin for that rational basis. Christianity stands or falls on that alone.

But if it stands… the resurrection isn’t just the lynchpin of Christianity. It is God—the Supreme Being who created all life, all matter and energy in the universe, all time and space and causality—entering into human affairs as One of us to remake everything from within. The resurrection—if it’s true—isn’t just the central ingredient of a particular human religion among a global buffet line of religions. It is the lynchpin of existence itself. It’s the axis of history, the turning point of… everything. It’s the proof—not just of God’s existence, but of His unfathomable love for humanity, and of our privileged place in the cosmic order.

If it’s true, its significance cannot be overstated.

If it’s not true, well… then western civilization is built on a lie. And that’s not to hold civilization hostage to the reputation of Christianity, as if to say that we have to believe the resurrection to avoid invalidating the past 2,000 years of history. If it’s not true, then invalidating everything built on the assumption of its truth is the most sensible and humane and moral thing to do. If it’s not true, pretending it is true just keeps us out of step with reality, and keeps billions of people living under a delusion.

I find that when I explain Christianity in these terms, I’m usually met with a great deal of surprise and skepticism: “You’re telling me you would abandon Christianity if it were disproven?” people often ask, typically with a raised eyebrow and a disbelieving scoff.

And I think that’s the right question to ask, and for Christians to consider, because it recognizes that this isn’t just a clear-cut question of truth vs. falsehood; it’s a relationship we’re calling into question—our relationship with God. Longtime churchgoers who have cultivated a lifelong relationship with God (or “God” in many cases, to be blunt and honest) are understandably sensitive and defensive about discussions like these.

That’s why I usually answer the question with another: “If you found out your wife was cheating on you, would you stay with her? Or, better yet—what if you found out she had lied about her past before you married her, and that she isn’t who she said she was? What then? What if your marriage was built on a lie, and you found out she only married you for your money? Would you end your marriage, or live a lie?”

If a person suspects his or her spouse of dishonesty or infidelity, he or she would probably get defensive if someone probed those doubts. They know their own vulnerability, the fragility of the life they’ve built, so they might fight a losing battle to maintain the illusion of a healthy and happy marriage, and insist that whatever the truth is, it’s nobody else’s business and that their marriage should be a private affair.

But, if they genuinely trust their spouse, they’ll have the opposite response if someone openly questions their partner’s fidelity. Instead of ducking for cover as rumors spread and take hold, they’ll protest their spouse’s innocence from the rooftops, because they’ll want the truth to be known and the lies to be refuted. They’ll invite scrutiny before they let their spouse’s reputation get dragged through the mud.

We live in a world in which God’s reputation and existence are constantly called into question, and so the Church’s relationship with Him is under perpetual assault and ridicule.

What are we to do about that? What would the apostles, or Jesus himself tell us we should do? Should we stay on the defensive—turning away and deflecting questions by insisting that “religion is a private matter,” and that our “faith” is too sacrosanct to be questioned? Or do we invite scrutiny, because we believe God’s character and glory will stand up to it?

I think we all know what Jesus and the apostles would instruct.

And that brings us to the question at hand.

How do we know if it’s all true?

What objective evidence, data, and facts are there at hand by which to begin our equation?

The most immediate data to consider are the innumerable churches dotting the land, the Bibles in virtually every home and hotel room, and the numerous other physical artifacts of the Christian religion.

Where did they all come from?

Putting it another way, how did Christianity come about?

It didn’t just emerge out of a vacuum one day. It didn’t fall out of the sky or spontaneously generate when a bunch of guys decided they just felt like starting a major world religion. A very specific set of circumstances gave rise to it by motivating people to work against existing tradition and religious convention to advance something else in its place.

Now, at this point in the discussion—whenever I have it in-person in a coffee shop or bar or somewhere, someone almost always jumps in to point out that there are also mosques and Qur’ans filling the land in other vast swaths of humanity, or synagogues and Talmuds, or temples and sutras, etc., and that these didn’t emerge out of nowhere, either.

And, of course, those people are getting ahead of the discussion. But, because people are usually so eager to rebut by pointing out Christianity’s vast and varied competition before I have a chance to make my case, I thought it might be helpful to consider the case for Christianity alongside the case for, say… Islam, so we can keep it all in perspective and context. Obviously, there are other religions we could also use as a basis for comparison, but I have to streamline this somehow, and since Islam is the most superficially similar religion to Christianity, and also happens to be the next largest religion in the world, it makes for the best comparison.

Besides that, Judaism is a different animal entirely from other religions, because the claim of Christianity is that it is, essentially, Judaism. I intend to address the inner workings of that relationship at some point in the future, but for now, I’ll simply point out that Judaism isn’t in competition with Christianity in quite the same way other religions are. Also, religions like Buddhism and Taoism aren’t even really “religions” in quite the same sense as Christianity, Judaism and Islam are, so the same comparisons can’t quite be made. But I intend to address Christianity’s relationship with those religions in the future as well.

So… all those churches and Bibles came from somewhere.

Christianity originated, as we all know, in the first century soon after Jesus was crucified, when his disciples appeared in public, claiming that he had risen from the dead.

That was the central message of Christianity from the very beginning: Jesus, who was crucified, has risen from the dead and appeared to us.

Everything else that we might categorize as “original Christianity” revolved around and grew out from that single claim about the resurrection.

To clarify, the followers of Jesus did not claim that they heard he’d risen from the dead. They didn’t claim that they hoped he’d risen from the dead. Their claim was that they saw him after he’d risen, they spoke with him, they ate with him, even touched the wounds on his body to verify that he wasn’t a ghost, and they claimed to have received explicit instructions to bring his teachings to the rest of the world. The claim was that he appeared to some individually at various points—such as Peter and James and Mary Magdalene and then Paul, but their collective mission and identity were rooted in him having appeared to all of them collectively and instructing them to bear witness to the fact and to carry his teachings to the rest of the world.

The religious movement that eventually came to be known as “Christianity” consisted of the claim of that shared experience. That’s what united them in fellowship, and that’s what defined their collective identity and mission. That was the essential core of their message as they advanced their movement from being a small, persecuted, local sect of Judaism in the mid 30s to a world religion, and that within a single generation.

And that’s an indisputable fact of history. Whatever else we believe about God or Christianity or the nature of reality, it is beyond dispute that that was how Christianity originated, and that that claim—their reported experience of the resurrection of Jesus—was what Christianity was from the beginning. Apart from that central claim, there would be no “Christianity” of which to speak: no Bibles in hotel nightstands, no megachurches dotting the land, no hospitals named after saints, no Red Cross, no Salvation Army, etc..

If past experience is any indication, at this point people might be shouting at the computer screen, “So what? People claim all kinds of crazy stuff all the time! Insane asylums and cults are full of people who believe things like that…”

Also, of course, the religion of Islam is based on something similar: Muhammed’s claim to having been visited numerous times by the angel Gabriel, who reportedly dictated the content of the Qur’an.

So, yeah. There is all that to consider.

But consider this as well: everything you know, you know because somebody else told you about it.

Yes, we have video and photography and computers and other generally dependable methods of recording and communicating information, and we have science, which provides the means to interpret physical evidence. However, we don’t actually believe anything primarily because of physical evidence or recorded data. Those only corroborate or supplement, or are the media of delivery for narratives provided through the testimony of people.

For instance, the number of people who have actually stepped foot on the surface of the moon is small enough that they could all fit into a single minivan (not comfortably, mind you, but they’d fit).

Right… LIke this wasn’t shot on a sound stage.

Yet, virtually every one of the 7 billion people on this planet believe that this miracle of human ingenuity took place, despite our lack of firsthand experience. There’s video footage of some of the landings, of course, but that alone isn’t why we believe they happened. There’s video footage of the starship Enterprise, too, and much more of it than the moon landings. Video footage can be faked and,

Looks pretty real to me…

in fact, we spend billions of dollars and millions of hours each year creating and watching video footage of fabricated events. No, it’s because people have provided a narrative we believe that we accept footage of the moon landings as genuine and footage of the Enterprise as fictitious.

Also, we have a system of justice in which innocence is presumed until guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

But how is it proven?

Very often, people are convicted and put to death on the sole evidence of what other people have said. Yes, DNA evidence and other scientific advances have revolutionized criminal justice in recent decades, and people wrongfully convicted have been set free by it. But, DNA and other scientific evidence has to be provided by someone—attorneys don’t just show juries slideshows of genetic diagrams to argue their case; they put experts on the stand to testify to what they’ve observed and interpreted. And the truth or falsehood of any given legal argument still revolves around human testimony, because DNA and other forms of physical evidence prove very little in themselves: they can only corroborate or contradict narratives offered by the prosecution or defense and the witnesses they call.  Witnesses might provide a narrative of events in which that DNA was present at the crime scene for completely innocent reasons, or provide testimony of circumstances in which no excuse of innocence could be made. Everything depends entirely upon what people say about how that piece of physical evidence got there, why it’s there, and what it means.

Every single thing you know, or think you know, was told to you by someone else. You have your own experiences, yes, but you interpret them through a larger framework of concepts and paradigms that were provided to you by others. Most of the population of this planet understands existence in this world in terms of a handful of broad paradigms. In our part of the world, it’s usually some combination of Newtonian physics, relativity theory, quantum mechanics, evolutionary biology, psychology, democracy, Judeo-Christian theism, secular humanism, postmodernism, etc.—and all personal and shared experience is interpreted through a series of filters like these. So, we have our own experiences, our own sensory input, but we interpret them through a framework of assumptions inculcated in us by others, which are comprised mostly of facts and observations about the universe that we didn’t personally discover and most of us have never personally verified.

Ultimately, human communication is the only medium in existence for the transmission of

Is she laughing or crying? I can’t tell.

knowledge. Everything else is just a tool by which people render testimony, and nothing more. Conventional wisdom has it that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but the reality is that it’s only within the narrative in which it’s provided that the picture has any worth. A photograph or video of a bunch of Muslims burning an American flag can mean any number of things, really, and our interpretation depends entirely on the caption, or on what the guy with the $70 haircut behind the anchor desk says leading up to it. Is it a story about what happened in the hours after 9/11, or is it a story about civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes?

The photo or video itself has no meaning apart from the story it’s being used to tell, and stories are told by people, and the story those people tell will make the difference between us hating those people for celebrating the deaths of innocent Americans or hating ourselves for causing their innocent deaths.

So, someone might scoff at the idea of using human testimony as evidence and roll their eyes when they read in scripture, “this is written that you might believe.” Except, there is no other form of evidence in existence—neither for the central claims of Christianity, nor for anything else in ancient or recent history. Even if Jesus lived and died in an age of video cameras and genetic testing, and film footage of his resurrection surfaced (which, for all intents and purposes, may well be the case), that evidence would be no more decisive than the evidence of ink on parchment, or of an oral tradition begun by the apostles, because all of it has to be created, copied, transmitted, preserved, and interpreted by human beings. The only difference is the medium by which that information is preserved, but it all amounts only to human testimony, and nothing more.

The testimony of the original Church is no more and no less valid than any other form of evidence we might evaluate today, because it is, in essence, the same form of evidence. So, if we dismiss that out of hand because we don’t think human testimony is a legitimate form of evidence, then logical consistency demands that we throw out everything else we know about the world.

However, like any human testimony, the testimony of the Church has to be evaluated. We don’t just accept it at face value. We have to ask questions about it.

Whenever anybody says anything, there are three basic questions by which we always evaluate their testimony, either tacitly and passively, or deliberately and explicitly: Are they lying? Do they believe it but are mistaken? Or are they telling the truth?

And those are really our only three options—not just for evaluating the truth of Christianity, but the truth of anything.  Any example of human testimony can only fit into one of only those three categories—they are either lying, mistaken, or telling the truth.

To sum up and review: it is an obvious and indisputable fact, of course, that Christianity exists. It is also a concrete and well-established fact that it exists because the original Christians all claimed to have encountered Jesus after he rose from the dead. Those churches we see on every street corner and those Bibles collecting dust in homes and hotel rooms all over the world wouldn’t be there today, but for that single fact.

So, what do we do with that fact, with that claim? Were the first Christians lying about their encounters with the risen Jesus? Or, did they believe they experienced what they said they experienced, but were somehow mistaken about it? Or, were they actually telling the truth?

If we examine the rest of the evidence about the origins of Christianity, it becomes increasingly difficult to entertain the hypothesis that they lied about it. The conclusion that they invented and spread the story of the resurrection as a deliberate deception becomes increasingly untenable—ridiculous even, the more we consider the lengths to which they went to advance that claim and the lives and behaviors they modeled and taught in light of it.

Could they have been honestly mistaken about it then? I could understand one person coming under a psychotic delusion about such an experience, or one exceptionally gullible person being fooled into it (which would fall under the previous category of “deception,” actually), but how do hundreds, or dozens, or even two people come into a mistaken belief of having physically encountered someone after that person had been publicly executed? The more scenarios we consider for how something like this might have happened, the less believable it becomes.

The more we consider the evidence, the more inescapable it becomes that they were telling the truth. The truth of the resurrection actually turns out to be the least fantastic explanation for the existence of Christianity, once all of the available facts are considered.

I don’t actually expect it to be that easy, though.

Even though I use words like “indisputable” about the central, original claim of Christianity, I know that people do, in fact, dispute that characterization.

For instance, there are those who would dispute that the original Christians’ message involved a literal, bodily resurrection.

Also, a great many people have no trouble whatsoever in believing that the apostles lied about it, or that they were under some kind of powerful delusion.

And, a great many people would believe almost anything before they’d believe that Jesus literally and factually and physically rose from the dead.

I get that.

But those alternative beliefs aren’t based on the evidence. Or, they’re based on misinformation, which certainly abounds after 2,000 years of skepticism and controversy about the origins of Christianity.

As I intend to demonstrate in what follows, though, rejection of the resurrection is far more faith-based than informed acceptance of it is. And by “faith,” of course, I don’t mean “faith” as it’s presented in the New Testament. No, by “faith-based,” I mean “faith” in terms of the popular definition, according to which a person’s belief system is their beginning premise, which they maintain through rationalization and fallacious logic and by carefully sifting facts to support that initial premise, which is then offered as a carefully-guarded conclusion.

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