Believe It, Or Not?

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It’s been my thought for some time now and has become even more cemented in place over the past few years.  People will believe anything, especially if it fills their desire for meaning and purpose, even if it is ridiculous at face value.  But don’t mistake the for a shot at tradition.  Karl Marx said that religion is “the opiate of the masses” and yet his alternative drug produces delusion, rage and violence.  I’ll take Jesus and love over that any day of the week.

Sure, this quote could have some truth to it:

“Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers. It tells people to go out and stick their noses in other people’s business.”

E. J. Dionne Jr

But that same statement could be applied to almost every popular secular movement or established consensus.  Certainly not all, not even many, who believe in various narratives or theories are qualified experts.  Most have simply bought into a system and are riding the ideological bandwagon.  Good science is religious and organized, scientism is a cult and a way of silencing critical thinkers who are outside of the political mainstream.  I would certainly take Gospel tracts shoved in my face over social media censorship of my ‘wrongthink’ and higher taxes that won’t do anything to save the planet.

Call me a skeptic of everything, I just find it difficult subscribing to anything anymore, to me it is all easy-believism.  I mean, does it seriously change anything about my day-to-day life to believe in climate change or go to church?  Probably not.  People might make a symbolic sacrifice here and there.  However, for the most part the commitment doesn’t ever match the rhetoric.  The faithful aren’t walking on water nor are those who loudly proclaim their extreme consternation about the climate giving up their private jets or beach homes.

But it is much more basic than this, go ask people about who is the best president ever (or worst) and you’ll get completely opposite answers.  To some Trump was the guy who spoke to their own concerns and delivered, to others Biden is the guy who has restored the normalcy they craved.  Both sides can support their own perspective if given the chance.  Can they all be right?  Okay, so it is subjective, an opinion which man is better or worse, and yet we don’t agree on what is objective either.

I love talking to the most sincere people, the true believers, because they are so confident about what they say and it is enviable.  If you have had a bad experience with those who espouse their ideology, then that’s the rare exception, an anomaly, and is not the real version that is represented by them.  I’m just not like them.  I can’t help my skepticism of their beliefs.  I’m not very easily sold on their the basis of their sureness and claims alone, show me the undeniable evidence.  I do not fall for their conviction or consensus.

People do not seem to know where reality ends and their imagination begins.  Basically every narrative we create is a sort of fiction we create for ourselves.  We take the bits of data, very often distorted by our own flawed perception, and interpret it into a story that makes sense to us.  Systemic heightism, for example, describes something very real, is even quantifiable, and yet is also an overlay that doesn’t truly describe the truly complex picture.  What we accept or deny is often a product of our conditioning, social status and base desires.

The primitive communism that Marx used to fashion his ideas were as much a fabrication as any religious mythos.  Idealistic children likely subscribe to his theories for the same reason they love Disney fairy tales or Marvel comic book heroes.  Utopia ahead is a very strong motivator, in that we are very willing to make huge personal sacrifices when we believe that heaven awaits us.  And yet, as much as see the ‘faithful’ fall for obvious con-men, it makes every testimony questionable. 

The problem with my own unbelief is that I also believe this too.  I trust myself enough to mistrust.  Maybe my own ambivalence, and sometimes agnosticism, will make me miss the one truth in the sea of lies?  Still, I’m convinced my only ability to be sure of anything will have to be direct revelation from God, because I know too well that I’m a blind man in a world of full of blindness.  I’ll admit, this isn’t the most comforting or easy answer, but people believe many things that simply are not true.

What do I believe?

I believe what is most beneficial.  Maybe all of religious narrative is a fabrication and yet the real question is it useful, will it produce results that make the world better?  

The Christ I believe teaches me the value of delayed gratification.  In other words, when we invest in others, in faith, there is a chance that we make a friend and split the dividend of our peace.  In doing unto others, in love, there is a chance of solving our conflicts and ending hostilities.  Christianity, unlike various popular political systems, makes no utopian promise in this life, and yet it does help to push behavior in the right direction.

[Don’t] Trust The Narrative

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The truth of a story is not proportional to our investment in it.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example, is a movie franchise worth nearly 23 billion dollars and has no basis reality other than locations.  And still, despite being complete fiction, people are obsessed.  We treat the characters as if they’re real, repeat their lines, cosplay to participate in the fantasy, and it does seem that many would rather be lost in this exciting world of make-believe than live their actual lives.

It is really interesting how outside observers of religions (other than their own) have no difficulty dismissing the beliefs and practices.  The claims of L. Ron Hubbard, or Joseph Smith, or Muhammad ibn Abdullah aren’t all that compelling to non-adherents.  I mean, come on, riding through the sky on a horse with a woman’s head and the tail of a peacock sounds more like a crazy acid trip than something to take seriously, right?  But for this raised in an Islamic country, this makes more sense than Trinity or resurrection.

I’m quite certain that the Biblical narrative, whether Genesis or the Gospels, would have been far less believable had I not been indoctrinated as a child.  I mean, it made sense to me then.  My parents and every other respectable adult that I knew held to this belief system.  It would actually be rather strange had I rejected this outright.  It was only later that the vast differences between even various Mennonite sects, and facing challenges to my assumptions, that I even knew how to question.

Of course, this doesn’t make those raised outside of organized religion any more rational.  Secular ideas, like Evolution and Global Warming, have taken on their own narrative framework, similar to religion, that far exceeds the actual evidence.  Not all of the gaps can be explained by Natural Selection.  And climate apocalypticism has strange similarities to the “end times” prophecies common with many caught up in Evangelicalism.  Al Gore is basically Harold Camping with corporate sponsorship.

Most of these narratives can’t be entirely falsified.  The decades and decades of dire predictions from climate alarmists haven’t come true, yet they keep moving the goal posts, even making claims in contradiction to those prior, and the next generation of conscientious young people are none the wiser.  Likewise, the doctrines and practices of traditional religions evolve and get twisted every which way, to the point that you can’t get people raised in the same denomination to agree.  

The strangest thing is how these various movements never die even when their claims are falsified.  For example, the Seventh-day Adventists arose from the false Millerite prophecy that Jesus would return on October 22, 1844.  The date came and went without event.  But, despite this Great Disappointment, some who saw their central claim proven false still regrouped and continued on their way again.  Perhaps the investment made was too much to simply give it up?  

It’s sort of like I don’t expect the “believe science” midwits to ever comprehend how many times the experts get it wrong or reconsider.  They’ll probably go on praising Dr. Fauci as a saint even after the puppy experimentation scandal, even after the NIH now admits to funding of gain-of-function research, and probably because it would cause too much discomfort to consider that their trust may have been misplaced.

It takes a boatload of evidence to overturn these narratives we have built up in our minds.  Bad ideas, like Marxism, even if they fail miserably in one place, are often recycled and reintroduced.  At the same time, credit for plain luck is given to whatever a person wants to have credit.  A boom economy, with the President you voted for, and it is obviously a product of wise leadership, right?  The sun came up right after you prayed?  Must be the grace of God.

All religion, all political ideologies, the trust we have in certain institutions or people, is part of our embracing narratives.  Whether you believe vaccines cause autism or ended Polio depends more on who (or what) you accept as an authority than the actual evidence.  Past narratives might seem irrational to you, like the idea that autism was caused by “refrigerator moms,” yet made complete sense to many influential and intelligent ‘scientific’ people at one time.  Those who go against the currently popular ‘expert’ consensus can expect persecution.

All this to say that we aren’t as good at discerning truth as we imagine.  In many cases what we believe is nearly as much fiction as Captain America fighting against Hydra.  It isn’t just the conspiracy theorist kooks buying into narratives despite evidence to the contrary, we all do, we all believe a blend of religious propaganda, political indoctrination, and out-of-context or unqualified facts stitched together, and much of it as absurd as the narratives we reject.

Where To Go From Here?

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The past few years have been monumental for me. This blog has followed my own personal journey from the initial ideation about love, faith and spiritual life to some major transitions. I’ve changed careers, departed from the denomination that had been the identity I most cherished, and basically had my life turned upside down.

This blog had started as a result of a prayer, as an act of faith, and was to chronicle a fight to overcome the odds. I had realized my own limitations. I was single, in my mid-thirties, working a job that didn’t suit me very well, and worried about being the unfaithful servant who buried his talents. Unfortunately, for myself, I didn’t know a way out of the predicament.

But, instead of wallow in my self-pity, I decided to actually believe what Jesus said, “everything is possible for one who believes,” and with complete reckless abandon, prayed to God asking that the impossible be made possible for me.

I had committed to believing beyond human reason or my own rationality, to believe without adding the qualifications so often used by the religious to excuse their own lack of faith and as a means of preserve their self-serving status quo. My aim was to overcome whatever, the bad luck, personal failures or cultural prejudices, that kept me from living out the potential that seemed to be locked away somewhere and yet was still unrealized.

Of course a big part of that prayer, given the importance of marriage in a conservative Mennonite setting, was in hope of finally getting beyond the invisible barrier to my romantic success and finding the “right one” who could love me despite my imperfection.

My deepest fear had always been that love is little more than a post hoc explanation of something determined at a far baser level. In other words, that love was decided by attributes mostly biologically predetermined or based in performance. If a person lacking the right inborn characteristics is essentially unlovable, then the whole mythology we build around love as something pristine or pure is a delusion and love itself becomes a justification of our selfish or carnal ambitions.

I was determined to disprove that hypothesis. I intentionally sought out a girl theoretically “out of my league” for a variety of those lesser reasons. Before this, I had always picked pragmatically based in who I thought would say “yes” (although they often didn’t) and not with any real faith. This time I picked on what I believed God wanted me to be and because she seemed to be the one who could get me past those limitations. She wasn’t someone who seemed frozen in indecision, she shared my own cultural ideal and would compliment my strengths and weaknesses.

Alas, her sanity won out over my irrational faith-fueled hopes.

However, in telling my story of faith and struggle this blog gained popularity. Over the time my hopes ran into the brick wall of her reasons she couldn’t love me (very much like those I had feared) this blog rose to prominence in the Mennonite blogosphere. Suddenly, in my moment of deep despair and disappointment with my Mennonite ideal, I had an audience of thousands. In a matter of hours a sardonic post assigning points for marriageability, something I wrote one morning while stewing over the reality of the depressing situation I found myself in, was a viral sensation and had obviously resonated with a great swath of people.

After that, I wrote a string of posts about some of those issues I’ve had with the church I was born into and previously didn’t know how to express. It was during this time that a blog post about fundamental flaws in the current conservative Mennonite thinking was picked up by Mennonite World Review. It later made rounds in a conservative email group posted by none other than Peter Hoover who had, by writing Secret of the Strength, inspired my Anabaptist perspective many years before and put me at odds with the creeping influence of fundamentalism.

The great irony in it all was that I reached the pinnacle of my own influence in the Mennonite world *after* I had attended my last service.

Since then, in a greater irony, I’ve seen a romance blossom that would’ve been impossible had I remained Mennonite and evidence of that kind of love of the faithful variety that I did not find where I had most expected to find it. There is a real story of the impossible being made possible developing, not the story of love triumphing over the odds that I had thought I would tell and yet every bit as powerful. However, too much is in limbo right now regarding that circumstance to write about it.

Beyond that, there is also my being immersed into Orthodoxy and the difficulty of putting that experience into words. I mean I could argue for Orthodox Christian practices and perspectives, I have written a couple blogs trying to explain such things to my Mennonite audience, yet Orthodoxy is something better to be experienced. Like Jesus said “follow me,” they make an appeal that is not strictly emotional nor intellectual, but experiential. Faith is something that must be walked to be understood. The Orthodox don’t proselytize in a Protestant manner. No, instead, they invite others to “come and see” like Philip did in urging Nathanael to join him and rely on the mysterious work of God:

The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”

Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.

“Come and see,” said Philip.

When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.

Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.” (John 1:43-50)

Can anyone rival that with eloquent words or elaborate arguments?

I know I can’t rival that sort of mysterious work in my own words and worry that my words will actually take away from the beauty of the ancient faith. I mean, what could I possibly add to something so wonderful and profound with my clumsy and simplistic explanations?

So this all leaves me with a dilemma as a writer. Am I more than a one-trick pony? Even as I’ve progressed over the past few months, I feel my blogs have started to become a bit repetitive, as if I only really have one story to tell, and that has bothered me. My area of expertise, at this point, is how to fail miserably trying to find love in the Mennonite context. My painful past is something that I would rather transition away from, something to be discarded along with “former delusions” that I renounced at my Chrismation, to make way for a brighter future.

But the question remains, what will be written in the next chapter?

Where to go from here?

Faith: I Believe, So Help Me To Believe!

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The Pharisees were content because they were successful and could afford to believe they were righteous.  They were people who studied the law carefully and followed it diligently.  They had no lack of missionary zeal and devotion, they had titles, love of families and other wealth.

But these religious people with all the answers lacked one thing and it seems something that is still missing in religious traditions.  Everything they did they had accomplished on their own strength.  There was no room in their life for radical faith that believes the impossible.  No, they were content with only what they could understand and rejected anything more.

As I look around the Christian religious landscape today I could ask the same question Jesus did at the end of this story in Luke 18:1-8:

“Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought.  And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’  “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think,  yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”  And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.  And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?  I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?

I am certain Jesus would find many religiously devoted today.  I sure he would find those confident in their theology, their ‘Biblical’ standards and dogmas.  There are plenty of self-proclaimed experts with all of the right answers who pound pulpits and fill pews.  But would Jesus find faith real and unadulterated?

What is faith?

I believe this account in Mark 9:14-29 describes it:

“When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.  “What are you arguing with them about?” he asked.  A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”   “You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”  So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.  Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”  “From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”   “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”    Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”  When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”  The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.”  But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.  After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”   He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”

I am not certain if the ailment of the boy would be considered a medical condition today.  But Jesus does seem to indicate that it was an incurable condition by any means other than prayer (or prayer and fasting) and therefore the healing was a miracle.

This is not a case for “faith healing” as a prescription for all illness.  It was a special circumstance where there was a condition that was impossible to cure by any other means.  So to turn this story into a reason to shun modern medicine is to vastly miss the point. 

If the light bulb burns out at church it only requires a budget or funds to replace it and not necessarily faith.  Faith is not about forcing God to do what is clearly within our own power to do.  Faith is doing all we can, investing our everything in something unseen, and having the outcome uncertain.

Faith is More than Reasonably Committed

There was the widow at Zarephath (1 Kings 17: 7-24) who used the last of her supplies to make bread for the prophet Elijah and had her needs supplied miraculously for her faithfulness.  The poor woman mentioned in Mark 12:41-44 is also an example of radical faith in action:

“Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.  Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.  They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

It requires very little faith for a wealthy business person to give of his millions when their needs are already supplied abundantly.  But faith, radical faith, is when a person is able to commit their all to an unbelievable promise.  Most would only contribute their all to a sure thing and not gamble it all on something unseen.

However, faith, according to Hebrews 11:5-6, is an essentially component, even the backbone of the message of the Gospel:

“By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: “He could not be found, because God had taken him away.” For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

A religiously devoted person could go their entire life without need of faith.  If they only ever ask or achieve what is readily within their reach they have proven their dedication.  For some they put in their duty, but they don’t truly believe in a God of the impossible and live solely in their own understanding.

I am not content with religious devotion.  There is no sensible middle ground of belief without faith or it is falsehood.  For me, and according to the Bible, true faith is all or nothing proposition: It is radical faith or none at all. 

And yet, because we can never have enough faith to save our own selves, faith is a paradoxical product of grace.

Do you have faith?