Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Parable on False Gods, Faking Faith and Vertiginous Modernity

The best thing I read today:

Secretly Seduced By Science: Hasidic Atheists Lead a Double Life

The essay describes the experiences of Hasidic Jews who have lost their faith in God but who also stand to lose their community and families in the process. Instead of leaving them, they still live their lives within their tradition while trying to reconcile their newfound joy in personal enlightenment with their devastation at having lost something so integral to their identity and personal foundation.

Some of the stories sound bitter, some resigned and others are a little wry. But the theme involves the incruguity of their undeirstanding of the biblical Book of Genesis and modern science. This isn't a new story, though usually you don't see it from a Hasidic perspective, and it's at the crux of many contemporary science and religion debates. It's a crisis of faith and it's overwhelming to have so many doubts yet so few answers.

It's also avoidable. For ministers it is easy to trade in difficult questions -and the far more difficult realities that they force you to face - for pious platitudes. I do not believe that God is interested in pious posturing. I do not believe that God is asking a person who is imbued with, animated by, and themselves embody the same rationality that sustains His creation to accept absurdities. It's not fair to people who have serious questions to give them riddles if they're looking for answers. Yes, challenge a worldview that is radically materialistic, even to the ontological level. Yes, insist that divinity cannot be reduced to atoms and particles any more than it can be divided into turns of phrases and the accidents of grammar. But more than anything, challenge your own understanding of God because anything other than God Himself is an idol, a false representation, a concept masquerading as the real thing.

What's heartbreaking in all of these stories is that the people who they went to for answers didn't seem to engage with the real problems that they faced. If you're not willing to accompany them down a road that can challenge your own view of things then at least know enough to at least point them in the right direction. If a friend asked me to get them to Los Angeles I might not be able to personally get them to California but I can at least drive them to the airport. I think the greatest experts don't see themselves as experts. They see themselves as students who know where there own understanding of things ends and are honest about it.

When I began studying the Bible seriously -serious enough to learn the main biblical languages, serious enough to learn everything I could about the world that produced the people who made it, serious enough to make it my life's work (and I am by no means an expert)- I found that I had a pretty huge choice to make early on. I could either be an apologist for a bunch of things I didn't quite understand at the service of things that I thought would be challenged by asking hard questions, or I could just be open to what I was hearing. When I tried to the former, I learned nothing, confirmed suspicions, and became arrogant. It never worked and I would skim through the difficult stuff and posture an agonizingly putrid sense of authority. Maybe no one noticed it but I sure did. It's poisonous.

But I did a couple things that I think helped me learn more and, I believe, afforded me a much greater faith.

  • Keeping an open mind - For every potential "deal breaker" that could potentially destroy my faith I found an opportunity. Realizing that the first chapter of Genesis isn't a science textbook doesn't destroy Genesis. It allowed me to learn more about the conceptual world of the priestly writer who saw creation as a great Temple to God where mankind is imbued with a great dignity. The idea that perhaps the early Israelites were originally Canaanites gave a whole new hope in resolving religious conflict. Dealing with the most violent stories of the Bible helped me see how those instances weren't granting permission to do likewise but cautionary tales whose consequences would have been missed without a proper perspective. 
  • Trying not to be defensive - If my faith is so fragile that it can't withstand some difficult questions, then maybe I need to learn some more. If I can't handle being wrong, then I'm never going to find the right answer. If I can't keep my cool in a dispute then I really am being irrational. 
  • Not mischaracterizing people who think differently and not mischaracterizing their opinions - What I love most about Pope Benedict XVI as a theologian is that he would always refuse to be anything but fair to other people's points of views. He could spend pages recounting an opinion before criticizing it and it would be done in such a way that the person who he was criticizing could hardly accuse him of being unfair. If someone puts an idea out there, it's intellectually dishonest to reduce their ideas just so you can deal with it better. You can't get to the heart of an argument unless you are willing to deal with it as it's presented. Sometimes an argument is framed poorly and needs to be reoriented. But if your going to venture having an opponent at least be fair to them. 
  • Being fair but critical - ...and while you want to be fair to someone you disagree with you also have to be able to question assumptions, clarify loaded terminology, point out biases and so on. 
  • Be okay with feeling dumb and being wrong - I read a quote attributed to Al Pacino that said "If you are the smartest person in the room then you are in the wrong room". Maybe it was Madonna. Either way, it's right on. I've been lucky enough to be around lots of smarter, older people with way more experience than me and I've always been better for it. In biblical studies you'll find yourself in the room with people who might know a few dozen languages between them all and have more abbreviations appended to their name than you could possibly discern. If you want to be the smartest person in that room then you'll have a lot of work to do. 
  • Enter the debate - For every idea, there is someone else who can debate it. For every great point made by a Richard Dawkins there are a hundred responses that you owe to yourself to read if your going to take his as the right one. And those responses have responses. And so on. It doesn't end. If you hold up one quote or one meme or one bad example as an exemplar without offering a challenge to it, then you are no different than someone who uses the Bible to justify the belief that the cavemen rode dinosaurs. You got caught up in your thing and stopped there. It doesn't stop and you'll learn a lot more from the debate.
  • Concede a point, even if it conflicts with yours - being right is severely overrated. The truth matters more and no one says you have to be the one that has it. The obsessive need to be right pales in comparison to being lucky enough to be around to hear or witness the truth for yourself. 
  • Respecting those who came before - GK Chesterton referred to the "democracy or the dead", those people in history who are silent simply because they were too busy preparing the world for you. I think mostly of those respectable and kind members of our families who have passed on but left a tradition of faith and core values. I simply refuse to believe that my great-grandmother, who was one of the greatest witnesses to my Catholic faith in my life, was simply deluded at best or a fool at worst. As a kid I could tell that she had something precious and I'm still trying to understand it. 
  • Not being the center of the world - My worldview is not the world. The way I see things is not the way. I am not the way, the truth, or the life. Only one person dared say that He was and that's a role I'm most happy to relinquish. Just because something doesn't make sense to me doesn't mean it's wrong.
  • Praying - God is not a character in a book. My faith is not in a book. The "book" isn't even a proper book. It wasn't written in one sitting. It's the product of an entire tradition engaging with the real world and wrestling with their understanding of God, so feel free to do the same. They had powerful experiences of God and they didn't want you to read the book so it would all terminate in the book. That would be like a book on dating hoping to rope you into its pages instead of engaging a potential mate. Engaging God directly means being unafraid to shatter your idols, even if that idol is a lovingly recreated version of Him.

And that's really at the center of my heartbreak over that article. We make idols of God all the time. Any concept of God is ultimately an idol because a concept is your mind's way of reducing something so it's understandable to you. It's like someone who is obsessed about getting married and thinks they understand it without actually being married. The idea is not the reality. It's an invitation to the reality but it can also mar any meaningful engagement with that reality, especially when the object is the relationship itself and not the person that it is supposed to link you with.

Lastly, we have more access to information and more possibilities than anyone in history. With that comes a danger: we can confirm any suspicion or validate any bias. Working in ministry, I am tempted by laziness to gather a collection of platitudes and factoids as though they were snake oils in a charlatan's bag, promising to salve cancers and serious maladies with simple postures that ultimately offer no real solutions. They won't work for the day it matters most and my faith in a living God won't allow it. I can't face Him having faced modernity so poorly and having offered no real contribution to helping people to understand Him honestly.

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