Saturday, December 28, 2002

I trimmed this from my book manuscript about integrating heaven and worldview, but I thought I'd retain it here. As the scope of my faith grows, so does the scope of my doubts, but what has been a comforting realization for me over the last couple years is that it is as hard not to believe as it is to believe. I tied the essay below to this train of thought:

When GQ magazine asked celebrity Jennifer Lopez about her third marriage, which came about within months of her second, she said, “I’ve made commitments to people and done things that I thought were right at the time. I just follow my heart. You do what you need to do at the time for what you need at the time.” Listen carefully: it sounds vague and dismissive, but it’s actually a profession of faith, a declaration of a moral philosophy that integrates Lopez’s belief and behavior.

This is longer than most thought postings, so you can click here to skip to the next entry, Places&Culture.

Thought of the day: Why atheism is a faith
Human beings of at least childlike mental ability are incapable of separating their beliefs from their actions, or they will experience what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. So it’s not a question of whether you believe in something or not. It’s what you believe, and how your beliefs resonate with your life, the biblical story, and the world you see around you.

To declare that the deity does not exist, that life is purposeless and random, that religious wisdom is invalid, that Truth is a farce, and that heaven is a silly dream, is to articulate a belief system about the contours of human existence. Which is impossible without faith. The sales pitch for atheism is that it’s sensible and level-headed, but in truth it requires an emaciating tug on the imagination, and a diligence in the face of life’s withering persecution of the human will to believe.

To not believe in God is as hard for a finite, meager mortal to think and declare as to believe in God. As Christians must wrestle with the vexing question of how there can be a God if there is pain and suffering in the world, so atheists must struggle with the question of how there cannot be a God with joy and pleasure in the world. There is no logical, scientific answer for why sex is enjoyable or chocolate tastes good—reproduction and sustenance could be unremarkably functional in order for life to go on.

As a Christian I would argue that the two—belief in God, belief in no God—are not equal in degree of difficulty; the latter is more difficult, since it must be done without the aid of inspiration in the face of natural wonder, the resonance of the Logos or word of God, the solidarity of a throng of believers past and present, and the stark fact that the potentially intolerable chaos of social order is at times, even often, livable and enjoyable. Take each of these segments by themselves, and they may not be all that convincing (or they may). But when taken as an inspiring whole, the sum is greater than the parts.

For me, the most inescapable view of God is that of artist and designer. Someone has to answer for the profound fact that the pageant of natural and social life plays out day to day, century to century, without imploding on itself—much less that this pageant can at times bring joy and peace. “Whoever is responsible,” writes Philip Yancey, “is a fierce and imcomparable artist beside whom all human achievement and creativity dwindle as child's play.”

To view a Monet painting and believe that the form and beauty of the work could not come from a random splattering of meaninglessly projected paint droplets is to understand the logic of believing in intelligent design, and the illogic of denying it. To view nature and society, more amazing than a million Monets, is to see it as a work of both imaginative art and practical engineering, and to then trace it back to the author. “There [is] something personal in the world, as in a work of art,” said G.K Chesterton. “Magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have someone to mean it." On the other hand, it takes faith to belittle the splendor of a sunrise. Or, as Chesterton said, "The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank."

Indeed, even though we know that God uses evolution in his management of the natural world—and may have even used it to bring the natural world into being—this is just a description of a master at work, like a biography of Michelangelo. Oddly, faith and science are often seen to be at odds. But the more we learn about science, the more adjectives we have for God. And the more we sense that the world is not stagnant but is a work in progress—is building toward something. As the apostle Paul says, God will bring his work “to completion.”

Ever since the Enlightenment responded to the history-wide plague of narrow-minded religious institutions with a detached belief in science and rationality (and who is the mastermind behind those?), the assumption developed and remains dominant in our society today that it is more logical and less sentimental to not believe in God. Could it be that the true zealots are those who see the stars and remain defiant, and that believers are sometimes the ones who make the most sense?

None of this is to try to logically prove God or fully discredit athiesm, either of which is impossible. Trying to fully comprehend God is like trying to run Windows98 on a pocket calculator—we just don’t have the cognitive and spiritual equipment. To experience fellowship with God is a spiritual experience that requires the soul stirrings of the Holy Spirit. Besides, the apostle Paul says that now we see as through foggy glass; then we will see in full.

It is only to observe and submit that since everyone already functions according to certain beliefs which, throughout life’s experiences, must resonate with the world we see in front of us, we would do well to consider the biblical story, the coherent story of a world made, perverted, saved, and eventually completed. Believing in heaven, then, is not like believing in Santa Claus; it is rather a relevant extension and fulfillment of our faith and our observations about the natural and social world. Since we find ourselves alive in the middle of this existence, staring at the sea or standing on a city street, it would be stubborn to refrain from trying to articulate a coherent system of meaning that begins to define what we see and give meaning to our days.

My book in progress: Living in the Hope of Heaven
Previous Thought: the ontological privilege of the postmodernist?

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